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Grouse

Male ruffed grouse drumming for a mate in spring.

My brother-in-law Mike Mather and I were talking over the holidays about a variety of things outdoor related when he asked me an interesting question I had not thought much about (except when back home in SW Wisconsin); “where have all the grouse gone?”

When one refers to “grouse” in Wisconsin, 99 times out of a 100 they are talking about the Ruffed Grouse. A beautiful woods-and-thicket-living game bird, smaller than a hen pheasant, with a short tail and wings who can maneuver through some pretty heavy cover to elude predators, and hunters. Mike is correct, they have all but disappeared from some of their old haunts in many parts of the upper Midwest, including NE Iowa and SW Wisconsin.

A bit of history as we “grousers” know it about this species. Known for its excellent table fare (they taste like a sweeter and larger version of a quail) mainly due to its diet, which includes acorns, catkins off poplar trees, winter leaf buds, insects, berries, and of course crop residue if present. They nest in the forests and edges where food and shelter can be found. Their young are precocious; meaning they can fly — at least a bit — only a short few days after hatching so they can escape at least some predators.

They thrive in snow, sometimes exploding out of a snow cave they have created by sitting tight on the ground as they are covered in an insulating blanket of snow during a storm. They have feathers on their legs and feet for warmth. Northern climates like those in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Southern Canada actually have decent populations of grouse still in some areas.

Over-hunting, of course, comes to mind as a reason for their decline, unless you have ever hunted them. You see, hunting in dense cover and thickets of dogwood and brambles, the grouse when flushed might give you one opportunity as it flies through a clearing or a cross a logging road to get off a shot, maybe. Other times you may just hear a whirr or wings and never actually see the bird. Bagging a limit of birds back in the day was a feat not accomplished by many, unless like a school of perch while fishing in the river, you “really got into them.”

Hunting dogs were a help, but not a must. Pointing dogs may have given you a bit of an advantage as you would know a bird was close by before they busted cover, but I saw flushing dogs like my friend, Kevin Berg’s springer spaniel, “Jack,” who could hunt grouse with the best of them. A good day saw you bag three birds each, maybe after 25 to 50 flushes, especially early season when brilliant colored foliage still clung to the trees and brush? Grouse hunting took patience, a good patterned shotgun, and a thick pair of briar-proof pants. It was not for the once-a-season hunter, you had to work for them, and it was a challenge. Over-hunting? Not likely as a demise of the species today.

How about food sources? Maybe the birds have run short on food? Well, I am not buying all that, but to some extent I say a definite maybe. More like competition for food, I believe. On one hand, farming and grazing practices in these areas where grouse numbers have plummeted have changed dramatically.

Areas that were once semi-open grazed forests are now impenetrable fortresses of briars and underbrush, like the invasive honeysuckle, so thick you need to crawl through them. Acres and acres of old growth forest have been logged of their acorn-producing oak timber, leaving less acorns to go around, and more species like turkeys, squirrels and increased deer populations to eat the acorns the grouse need too. So like I said — maybe.

Natural predators like hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes is, I think, a definite contributor to their decline. Sure, there are more of these species than ever in the wild these days. And even other species I have written about that do not so much prey on the wily grouse themselves, but their eggs and young. Raccoons, opossum, and skunks being the main egg-robbing species. They are thick, and to hide a clutch of eggs for nearly a month from these species seems almost impossible in many areas of the grouse’s range.

Decimation by lack of reproduction is definitely a way to influence a wild population of any species. Coyotes are as present as I have ever seen in almost every habitat, and they can snatch a grouse when the opportunity presents itself. So yes, predation may be a contributing factor as well.

What about that competition from other species, such as turkeys and squirrels? I actually saw the first signs of ruffed grouse population declines about the first time they started introducing wild turkeys into southwest Wisconsin. Wild turkeys now can be found almost everywhere in the U.S. and even in Canada. Birds that big need lots of food, and they also do not like nesting competition — meaning they will destroy other bird species’ nests, even eating the eggs of these competitors. They will eat about anything they can get their beaks on, and a 25-pound tom turkey is nothing to be trifled with when angry, or hungry.

"Okay, you said squirrels," you ask. "So next you are going to tell us readers that giant squads of marauding squirrels are hunting down grouse in packs?" No. When I was younger, we hunted squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels. They were thick, easy to hunt, and delicious.

The squirrel population was kept in balance by hunting, and these were direct competitors for the same foods as the grouse; especially acorns. Nowadays, no one hunts squirrels up in my old stomping grounds. Heck the squirrels are not even afraid of humans anymore, not even in the deep timber. More completion for food, less grouse. So squirrels being a contributing factor is plausible, I believe.

So how do we know there is such a decline in this species? Well, experts will tell you that grouse populations naturally “cycle” about every 10 years or so, peaking and then declining and then rebuilding to peak again. They are an easy bird to study/count. In spring, the male grouse calls out to all who can hear of his location when looking for a mate, yet they vocalize little. In calling, they actually use hollow or downed logs to set upon, dig their tails in so they do not fly away, and beat their wings to a drumming sound. You can sit in a parcel of land and listen for these drumming calls to gage a population density in spring. The telling thing is the drumming has declined dramatically over the last 30 years.

To me this is a sad statement. Any species that sees a rapid decline is an indicator to me that something is up, as any biologist will probably agree. Determining the cause(s) sometimes takes a look at a really big picture and drawing a conclusion that do not set well with everyone who is part of that ecosystem, including us humans. Solving the problem(s) once discovered is an almost impossible task, but it does not mean you have to quit trying. Managing forests, managing competitor species, and creating an ideal place for ruffed grouse to thrive is the goal. You can just shrug your shoulders and say it will not make a difference, or you can get to work on your own property or with groups of others like the North American Ruffed Grouse Society dedicated to saving upland bird species.

Thanks, Mike for making me think about this subject matter and the idea for an article. Not all the answers, nor all the solutions, but a start. Good luck to you and any others working to restore habitat for our natural world - it needs our help more than ever!

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