If you automatically think of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or another large city when someone mentions Pennsylvania, you are missing the beautiful fact that much of the state is filled with wide open spaces. From mountains to agricultural areas to woodlands, the state is filled with natural beauty. Official symbols include the hemlock tree, mountain laurel flowers and the state bird of Pennsylvania, which is the ruffed grouse. The word "ruff", which has a humorous tone to it, refers to the area of feathers encircling the bird's neck. This band of feathers is puffed up, along with the tail feathers, when the male bird is doing its mating ritual to attract females in the spring. The word "grouse", which is also amusing, is the name for a breed of bird that lives in the wild from Canada to the southern parts of the Carolinas. As the state bird of Pennsylvania, the ruffed grouse is particularly fun to locate when you go birdwatching.
In the early 20th century, states began designating official symbols. These are typically plants and animals that are native within each state's boundaries. The state bird of Pennsylvania was one of the earliest symbols to gain official approval. The ruffed grouse was given this rank in June of 1931. Other symbols followed, including the whitetail deer which was named the state animal in 1959, the firefly which was named state insect in 1974, and milk, which was named the state beverage in 1982. Being named the state bird of Pennsylvania does not give the bird any special protection. Instead, it is an acknowledgement of the bird's prevalence and importance since the earliest days of Pennsylvania's history through to modern times.
The state bird of Pennsylvania is about the size of a farmyard chicken. The ruffed grouse, however, has shorter legs than what you see on most chickens, and is typically seen running and darting through dense underbrush out in the wild. The ruffed grouse is generally light brown with darker brown -- almost black -- broken stripes running across its feathers.
As people move away from the dense population centers of large cities into the suburbs and countryside, the state bird of Pennsylvania has had to adapt to a smaller area of habitat. The bird count has slowly declined over the years, although it has never approached an endangered level. In some years, the bird count has even increased slightly.
The ruffed grouse is a game bird and popular during the hunting season harvest. As the state bird of Pennsylvania, the hunting season is heavily regulated and monitored by both the U.S. Forest service and the state Game Commission. Well-trained hunting dogs accompany the hunting party, carefully carrying the prey back to the hunters once the birds have been shot. Hunting for ruffed grouse typically occurs on the edges of lightly wooded areas where the birds hunt for food in the low growing shrubs and undergrowth.
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Birdwatchers may observe the state bird of Pennsylvania in many of the region's parks. In the northern part of the state, Big Pocono State Park is a great place to spot groups of ruffed grouse. Further south, the Laurel Highlands near Pittsburgh also offers many opportunities to see the birds in the wild. Observe precautions and stay on designated trails in the parks when you go bird watching in these areas.