Managing your woodland for ruffed grouse is much easier than you think, and can make a huge difference.
Most sportsmen are probably thinking about fishing this time of year, but not the dedicated hunters who pursue ruffed grouse each fall. Grouse, or partridge, are unique and charismatic game birds that are chased across the northern half of the country.
If you’re addicted to chasing these exciting birds and are fortunate enough to own even a small chunk of land, consider managing it using the advice below. It could mean more birds in your vest pocket in the years to come.
Ruffed grouse are typically found in deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. They seem to reach highest population densities in areas where aspen trees (Populus spp.) dominate.
These conditions are common in areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and much of the northeastern U.S. Grouse don’t require huge parcels of land to survive — in fact, most live their entire lives on less than 40 acres. This makes woodland management such an effective tool for even small properties.
Ruffed grouse exhibit a cyclic population, where population numbers peak every ten years or so. Grouse build their nests in the spring, typically in areas with dense overstories and somewhat open understories.
Generally, nests are simply bowls of twigs or leaves with an open sight path around it. Around 10-12 eggs are usually laid, which hatch in June. The hen will guide the chicks to a younger sapling stand, which provides insect forage and thick protective cover for the vulnerable young brood.
Early successional (i.e., young) forests adjacent to mature forests provide the optimal habitat combination for ruffed grouse. Fortunately, this mix of forest ages also benefits many other popular game animals, including whitetail deer, bears, turkeys, etc.
Throughout the year, grouse feed on buds, twigs, and catkins from aspen, hazel, birch, or cherry trees. The best habitat includes thick young aspen or hardwood stands, balsam fir or spruce conifers for cover, and more open mature forest stands.
If you’ve been in the woods in springtime, you’ve no doubt heard male grouse thumping their breasts from a drumming log. This drumming behavior helps find female mates and announces a territory to competing males. Having quality drumming logs on your property may encourage male grouse to stick around.
Habitat Management Actions
So what can you do on your land to improve habitat and food for ruffed grouse? First, consult a forester or wildlife biologist if you are unsure of the management actions below. Recognize that grouse require a mosaic of habitat types to best meet their needs. Since they typically live in very small areas, you need to provide this mosaic of three to four age classes and different forest types on a small scale.
One method to easily accomplish this is by selective firewood cutting in different areas of your property each year. This allows small pockets of dense regrowth in proximity to more mature forests.
On larger scales, you can manage a grid of 5- to 10-acre blocks. With aspen stands, for example, manage a square of four blocks by cutting one block every five or ten years. This way, there will always be a young successional forest all the way up to mature (40-year-old) aspen stands.
Be sure to leave pockets of mature trees or conifers for cover and food until the clearcut area grows back to sufficient density. Also leave a drumming log nearby these pockets. Set up a trail camera on these logs in the spring and you may get some cool pictures of a male grouse putting on a show!
You can follow this same approach for hardwood stands, with some caveats. Manage the same small blocks, but leave 5 to 10 mast-producing oak trees per acre as seed sources, and several immature trees that will fill that role once the mature seed trees die. In other words, you need to think 40 years ahead in many cases.
These very simple land management actions will help you hold more birds on your property for many years down the road. If you enjoy seeing ruffed grouse and your faithful hunting dog likes to retrieve them, there’s really no reason not to give it a whirl.
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