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FAQs on Grouse Hunting & Management

Answers to Common Questions about Ruffed Grouse Ecology, Hunting and Management

We receive many letters, calls, and e-mails from hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts regarding the status of ruffed grouse, what factors influence grouse populations, where to go grouse hunting, and what they can do to help grouse and other wildlife that depend on "early successional habitats" such as old fields, thickets, and young forests. Following are brief answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Why are there fewer ruffed grouse today than in the 1960s and 1970s?

Several different survey efforts (U.S. Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey, New York State Breeding Bird Atlas) support what grouse hunters have know for a long time - there has been a drastic decline in grouse numbers over the past 40 years. Breeding Bird Survey data indicate that ruffed grouse populations in New York have declined by more than 75% since the 1960s, or about - 4.7%/year.

Many factors drive changes in wildlife population distribution and abundance. For ruffed grouse in New York the primary reason for population declines is habitat quantity and quality. During the 1960s and 70s, many agricultural lands that had been abandoned were reverting to young forests - ideal habitat for ruffed grouse. Today, these forests have reached maturity, a less than ideal condition for grouse, woodcock, and other birds that require early successional habitats. Where we see the greatest population densities for grouse tends to be in areas where there is good habitat such as agricultural areas recently abandoned (within the last 10-20 years), areas with active timber management (particularly "even-aged" management such as clear cuts), or areas where habitats are maintained in an early successional stage due to environmental factors such as soil type, moisture, and natural disturbance (e.g., storms, fire, disease).

Do predators limit grouse populations?

Predation can play a role in limiting grouse populations, but it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests, and broods more vulnerable to predation. Grouse have evolved behaviors and reproductive strategies to cope with predation, but in highly fragmented landscapes predators may be more efficient in finding grouse and their nests. This is particularly true for nest predators such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums. In areas with poor habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, grouse and chicks may be more vulnerable to avian predators such as hawks and owls. Again, it is declining habitat quantity and quality on both a local and landscape scale that is increasing grouse vulnerability to predation, not simply higher predator populations. Large predators, such as coyotes, may be impacting game species on a local scale, but it is unclear whether they are affecting populations in large regions of New York or statewide. DEC recently initiated a study to look at coyote habitat use and diet preferences. The results of this research will lend some insight into the role of coyotes in limiting populations of game species.

Do ruffed grouse populations in New York follow "10-year cycles"?

In states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, ruffed grouse appear to follow ten-year cycles when populations are surveyed over large geographic scales (statewide or intrastate regions). Population trends at smaller scales (town or county) may not conform so easily to such patterns. Scientists are still unclear on exactly what drives these cycles, but many think it involves a complex interaction of habitat quality (stem density, food distribution and abundance), predation on nests and broods, weather, and other factors. In some years, natural phenomena such as outbreaks of tree-defoliating tent caterpillars may impact population cycles.

Are we seeing similar cycles in New York State? If we use statewide grouse harvest estimates as an index to grouse populations, over the past two decades there does not seem to be a 10-year cycle in New York. Whether this is because declining habitat quantity and quality have disrupted the cycle, or whether these habitat factors are "masking" a cycle that would normally occur during optimal habitat conditions is not known. Alternately, there may be population cycles operating at a geographic scale larger (e.g., the northeastern U.S.) or smaller (e.g., the St. Lawrence Valley) than currently being measured. Keeping a journal of your hunting activities or participating in the Grouse Hunter's Log may help you identify patterns in grouse populations in your area, and help us determine whether such cycles occur in New York.

Is DEC doing any studies of Ruffed Grouse in New York?

In an effort to answer some of the common questions about grouse populations, DEC has initiated two new surveys and a research project. The Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log asks grouse hunters to record the number of birds flushed per hour of hunting effort. The Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey asks turkey hunters to record all drumming male grouse observed while they are afield during the month of May. We hope that, when viewed over time and various spatial scales, both of these surveys will help us identify trends in grouse distribution and abundance.

Ruffed grouse with radio collar

In fall 2007, DEC initiated a cooperative research project with SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry to determine fall-winter survival and mortality of ruffed grouse in two areas of New York State with relatively high hunting pressure and different degrees of habitat fragmentation. This study was the first assessment of ruffed grouse survival and harvest mortality in New York in more than 50 years. We monitored fall-winter survival of 169 radio-marked Ruffed Grouse at two study areas in New York differing in forest age and composition. Fewer than 11% of radio-marked birds were harvested, and seasonal survival was similar at the two study areas in both study years (0.38 and 0.51, 2007-08; 0.48 and 0.48, 2008-09). Predation, particularly by raptors, was the largest source of mortality, but locations of predation events were not associated with forest age or configuration within 300 m. We found no evidence to support a reduction in harvest limits, although our harvest estimates may have been biased low. For more information about this study, read the article "Fading Drums" in the October 2010 issue of the Conservationist magazine.

What can I do on my land to help ruffed grouse?

If you have read this far, then you know that habitat is the key. Protecting existing habitat from development is critical, but may not be feasible for the average person. One option may be to participate on your local planning board to protect open space in your town or county. If you are fortunate to have a good grouse covert on your land, your best strategy is to work to maintain that habitat through cutting or other habitat management techniques. There are several books and web sites that describe how this is done (see the "Resources" section below for some examples).

Restoring habitat usually means cutting timber. This has an indirect benefit of generating revenue for the landowner, but it also means working with a professional forester to have the "right" trees cut. All timber cuts are not created equal. Depending on what your objectives are, what trees are harvested and how they are harvested may be very different. If you are interested in creating good habitat for grouse, woodcock, or other early successional wildlife species, it is important that you work with a professional forester. You can also contact your regional DEC office to talk to a state forester. They will help you develop a management plan for your property that will include sustainable management of your forest stand that will follow strict "Best Management Practices" (BMPs). Sustainable forestry that follows BMPs is the best way to produce benefits for you and the wildlife on your land now and in the future.

More information about managing your forest for wildlife can be found through Cornell University's Master Forest Owner/COVERTS Program. Over the past 17 years, the MFO/COVERTS Program has made on-site visits to over 1,000 New York forest owners to furnish technical guidance and assist with management plans. This program provides the information and encouragement necessary to help you manage your forest holdings wisely.

Where can I go to hunt ruffed grouse in New York State?

If you are interested in hunting public lands such as State Forests or Wildlife Management Areas, contact the regional DEC biologist or forester where you want to hunt. They can tell you about areas with active timber management, or areas where there has been timber management in the past 10 years or so. They may even be able to offer tips on the best coverts within a given area. Visit the DEC website for maps or other information on specific areas or request this information from your regional DEC office.

Based on data collected from the Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log, it appears that several regions tend to have higher grouse densities, so finding and gaining access to suitable habitats in those areas may be most rewarding (see highlighted area of map).

Ruffed Grouse Flush Rates by WMU 2004-08

Combining data from the first four seasons of the grouse hunting log allows us to identify a region that stretches from the St. Lawrence Valley in the north through the Otsego-Delaware Hills and the East Appalachian Plateau in the southern tier where we observe flush rates (grouse flushed/hour) similar to or above the statewide average of 1.1 birds/hour (this is illustrated by the Wildlife Management Units highlighted in orange on the map). This region also coincides with portions of New York that have proportionally greater amounts of early successional habitat due to timber harvest, abandoned agricultural land, or other environmental factors (e.g., soil type, natural disturbances such as storms). Wildlife Management Units in blue had either too few observations for analysis (e.g., WMU 4N) or had below-average flush rates (e.g., WMUs 9H, 9J, 9M, 9P, and 9W in western NY).

About 85% of the land in New York State is privately owned, so its likely that some of the best grouse coverts may be on private lands. The best strategy may be simply to ask landowners for permission to hunt grouse.

Resources:

From the DEC Website:

Protect and Improve the Quality of Your Forest Land

Cooperating Forester Program

Bureau of Private Land Services

The following links will take you off of the DEC website

From Audubon New York:

Wildlife and forestry in New York northern hardwoods: a guide for forest owners and managers

From the Penn State University, Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit:

Ruffed grouse responses to management of mixed oak and aspen communities in central Pennsylvania

From the Wisconsin County Extension Office:

A Landowner's Guide to Woodland Wildlife Management with Emphasis on the Ruffed Grouse

From the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries:

Ruffed Grouse Habitat Management