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Where Have the Ruffed Grouse Gone?

By Jerry Davis for the Wisconsin State Journal

TOWN OF BERRY -- Residents, particularly landowners, living in the driftless (unglaciated) areas of Wisconsin and adjacent states noticed when the whip-poor-wills called less often.

Ruffed grouse in winter.

Grouse can stay hidden from predators in young forest

After the 1980s, some also noticed the absence of ruffed grouse drumming in spring.

But a few “partridge” still remain here in southwest Wisconsin and across the borders in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.

Scott Walter flushed six ruffed grouse during the opening day of last fall’s gun deer season on his farm in Richland County. The previous spring, a neighbor of Walter’s heard six male grouse drumming on his property.

Walter, a regional wildlife biologist living in rural Viola, is employed by the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society in their Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois’ district. Before that, he spent five years in the upland game wildlife section of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and 10 years teaching at UW-Richland, where he studied Wisconsin’s beloved timber gamebird.

One of Walter’s new responsibilities is to assist individuals and organizations in rehabilitating woodland habitat to better fit a host of wildlife, particularly ruffed grouse and woodcock.

Recently he spoke with about 30 landowners at the Town of Berry Town Hall, near Mazomanie. Walter asked, and then answered, their likely question.

“What happened to the grouse in western Dane County and much of the rest of the driftless area?”

He quickly gave a pardon to wild turkeys, coyotes and the rest of the area’s predators but not to those who are not helping to create disturbances in their forests.

“A ruffed grouse is basically a hunk of meatloaf with feathers,” he said. “Is it a hawk’s fault if you released a rabbit on Lambeau Field and the hawk eats it, or would you blame the lack of the right habitat the creature needs to hide from predators?

“The area forests have matured and we’re no longer able to flush 40 birds in a day of hunting,” Walter lamented. “But we can bring them back to some level but not to what once was.”

In other words, it should be possible for a spring turkey hunter to hear the putt, putt sounds of that “John Deere tractor of the spring woods.”

That’s the drumming sound a male grouse makes from a well-protected log, but would never be heard in the middle of a savanna or hay field.

“A few birds are still here, but scattered,” Walter said. “A hen will lay 12 eggs and that can begin to bring them back to some level.”

Forest succession is the problem; a maturing forest does not provide for the needs of ruffed grouse who need sections of young forest; otherwise they are too exposed to owls, hawks, foxes and coyotes.

Dense regrowth of aspen provides optimal habitat./C. Fergus

Local development can hinder the bird’s survival, but that is not a major factor.

It may surprise those who still travel north to hunt that in the 1980s the grouse population was higher here than in northern Wisconsin, Walter said.

“The disturbances on the forest that kept a woods from maturing, from starting over, from creating some sections of young trees, particularly aspens, have been eliminated in many cases,” he said.

“Timber harvesting is a disturbance, but how that timber is harvested differs. The pulp industry in northern Wisconsin clear-cuts sections, which stimulate aspens,” Walter said. “We can do a patchwork of harvesting to create diversity. Grouse need some areas of dense, brushy forest.”

The acres of young forest in the driftless area have been reduced from about 300,000 acres in 1980 to 65,000 acres in 2015.

That patterns the reduction in grouse, too. Learn more about ruffed grouse and how they use young forest habitat.

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