A blur of brown feathers exploding from the ground, and the sound of my heart pumping wildly in my ears are the first memories I have of an encounter with a ruffed grouse.
As a percussionist, my father was always quick to point out the talent of the males during their spring breeding season displays. Their drumming wing beats would build to a crescendo that reverberated through the valley around our home.
I never expected that those childhood memories would become increasingly treasured due to troubling population declines across much of the ruffed grouse’s range. Many Ohioans have ruffed grouse stories similar to my own. Lamenting and questioning the disappearance of the once common Ohio game bird has become all too common.
Young forest loss
Populations of ruffed grouse in Ohio have been precipitously declining since around 1980, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Habitat loss, particularly of young forest, is one cause of the population decline.
Reasons for loss of young forest acreage include land-use change, drops in timber value and public misconceptions about forest management. The young forest habitat that the grouse uses doesn’t look “pretty.” It occurs after natural and man-made disturbances like wind storms and logging. The openings are thick with downed logs, herbaceous vegetation, shrubs and saplings. These patches can be difficult to see or travel through, so they are not usually a welcome sight to property owners or the general public.
West Nile virus
Disease has been adding to population declines already occurring due to habitat loss. Research by the Ruffed Grouse Society, Pennsylvania Game Commission and Colorado State University provided data that ruffed grouse suffer high mortality rates when infected with West Nile virus. There are instances where grouse survive and then are carrying antibodies to the mosquito-borne disease; however, grouse populations are now isolated enough that transfer of West Nile virus survivors is likely limited. This lowers the population’s resiliency to West Nile virus.
Help the ruffed grouse
While the situation can seem hopeless, there are measures that landowners, hunters and concerned citizens can take to help the ruffed grouse. First, property owners can work toward creating patches of young forest within mature forest acreage. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District for information on responsibly creating areas of young forest.
Second, eliminate stagnant standing water like the puddles found along property access trails. This is an easy way to get rid of the mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus.
Third, hunters can take part in the Ohio Ruffed Grouse Hunter Diary Program. This program helps track ruffed grouse encounters and flush rates. If interested, email email@example.com for more information.
Fourth, anyone can report grouse brood sightings to ODNR Division of Wildlife through their webpage, apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/speciessighting/ to help track population numbers.
In an effort to aid the grouse population, ODNR Division of Wildlife has also approved changes to the ruffed grouse hunting season. The length of the season was shortened with the season now ending Nov. 29 on public land and Jan. 1 on private land. Bag limits have also been reduced from two birds to one bird.
We have the ability to bring the ruffed grouse back to our forests with better habitat management. Ruffed grouse encounters should not become a rarity in Ohio.
Heart pounding flushes and reverberations of the springtime drumming rituals do not need to become only memories.
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