As we observe our local wildlife populations today, it is easy to see that we have made some definite progress within the last century. Species such as whitetail deer, Canada geese, wild turkey, and even bald eagles have all made substantial comebacks and are a more common sight in and around this area.
Unfortunately, not all wildlife has thrived equally. For instance, in the past, some of us may remember seeing or hearing more ruffed grouse. This leaves many of us scratching our heads, wondering what happened to these woodland game birds.
As our landscape continues to change, so does our wildlife abundance and diversity. Without proper habitats, these declining species have little chance to thrive as they did in the past. If we want to maintain a high level of wildlife diversity, we must provide a high level of habitat diversity.
I am often asked “What happened to all the ruffed grouse that use to inhabit these areas”? This is usually followed by the opinions of others who overheard the question.
“It’s those darn coyotes,” or “the wild turkeys have out competed them” or “there are too many hawks and owls.”
While some of these opinions may be true to an extent, most people are missing the big picture. Our once grouse-friendly habitat is changing. Our old overgrown fields have been put into row crop or hay production. Our young, thick, bramble-infested, reclaimed strip mine ground has matured into large open hardwoods.
While this may be great habitat for deer and turkey, it is not favored by grouse.
Early successional habitat
The type of habitat that grouse prefer is one that has continued to decrease over the years. It is defined as “early successional habitat.”
Early successional habitat consists of dense undergrowth dominated by shrubs and small saplings. This dense cover not only provides excellent shelter from weather and predators, but also provides an abundant food source in the way of insects, berries, and plant buds.
The main issue with this type of habitat is that it can be short-lived. Early successional habitat is only a stage within a forest life cycle. If left unmanaged, trees will begin to grow and out compete one another for sunlight. These mature trees will then shade out most of the underbrush, resulting in an open woodland.
Although this open woodland provides good habitat for some wildlife, it is not suitable for species that prefer dense cover.
Recreating that habitat. Early successional habitat can be achieved in a number of different ways.
One of the easiest methods of obtaining this type of cover is by conducting a clearcut. That’s right, you heard correctly, I am promoting clearcutting!
Over the years, clearcutting has gotten a bad rap, and for obvious reasons. You are taking what some see as a beautiful mature forest and stripping the ground of all its trees. However this practice is vital for promoting early successional habitat.
Clearcut logging causes stumps and root systems of trees to send up thousands of saplings. This dense cover is ideal habitat for ruffed grouse, woodcock, cottontail rabbits, and a host of song birds.
Determining the location of a clearcut is entirely up to the landowner. Ideal clearcut sites would consist of an area that has been over taken by either low value timber or timber with minimal wildlife benefit.
For example, you would be much better off clear cutting a stand of apsens, maples, locust, or pine then you would by cutting a stand of oak, cherry, and hickory.
As far as the size of a clearcut, the bigger the better. Grouse, like all other wildlife, need space. You will attract much more wildlife with a 10- to 20-acre clearcut than you would with a 1- to 2-acre clearcut.
Early successional habitat is obviously essential to grouse reproduction. It also however, has the ability to benefit a wide variety of other wildlife species.
If positioned next to fallow fields, early successional cover provides great wintering habitat for pheasants, quail, woodcock and cottontail rabbits. Wild turkeys will use this habitat for brood cover as hens and poults search for food. Deer will utilize the low lying branches for browse and also retreat to this thick cover for bedding.
The species that may get the most benefit from early successional habitat, however, are song birds. Mature woodlands that have been integrated with this type of habitat have seen their song bird diversity rise exponentially. This dense cover provides excellent nesting and feeding habitat for a plethora of different song birds that would not be found in a mature woodland habitat alone.
If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you have an affinity for wildlife and wildlife diversity. If you have any questions or would like to incorporate grouse habitat on your property, feel free to contact your local SWCD or your local Division of Wildlife headquarters.