Several successive Ohio winters in the late 1970s were brutal, with temperatures often dipping below zero and heavy snow lasting for months on end. It also happened to be the time when I was attempting to become a ruffed grouse hunter.
A group of friends had invited me to join them at their hunting cabin in the rugged hills of Meigs County to chase those then-abundant gamebirds for a few days. During one of our hunts, I noticed a neat, round, 4-inch-diameter hole in a snowdrift, and a grouse tail feather lying on the surface of the snow beside the hole.
Curious but unsure as to what I was seeing, I bent down to pick up the feather and a ruffed grouse exploded from the hole, showering my face with snow. I was too stunned to raise my shotgun and shoot. All I could do was watch the bird whir away, zigzagging around trees. What I had just learned — the hard way — is that ruffed grouse sometimes dive into snowdrifts to roost during severe weather, the insulating quality of their feathers keeping them cozy and warm.
Ruffed grouse were plentiful in Ohio during the second half of the 20th century, but no more. Human hunters are not to blame, as their seasonal take of the birds has always been negligible. Rather, it is the bird’s own habitat that is gradually turning against it, and according to the national Ruffed Grouse Society, that change is taking place across much of the ruffed grouse range — some 18 states — from the upper Midwest to New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, and Appalachia.
“In Ohio, ruffed grouse inhabit the heavily forested eastern and southern counties,” says Mark Wiley, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s forest gamebird biologist. “It’s about the size of a small chicken, and it prefers young forest habitat that grows after logging, the abandonment of pastures and farmland, or the reclamation of surface mines. Unfortunately, grouse numbers have declined considerably in Ohio since the early 1980s. Ohio’s total forest acreage has increased since that time, but the amount of young forest — prime ruffed grouse habitat — has decreased more than 65%.”
Wildlife biologists and foresters call it “succession,” that constant, ongoing, natural transition of forests from seedlings to mid-sized pole timber to mature trees. It’s in the early stages of the process that ruffed grouse populations thrive.
But only a small percentage of Ohio is publicly owned, so wildlife managers working to create more grouse habitat on those lands are having only minimal effects on the grouse population. Private landowners, who own 85% of Ohio’s woodlands, must do the majority of the heavy lifting if Ohio’s ruffed grouse population is to be turned around.
If you own or control woodland acreage within Ohio’s traditional ruffed grouse range and would like to help, Wiley suggests seeking advice from Ohio’s wildlife and forestry experts. “The ODNR, Division of Wildlife private-lands biologists and Division of Forestry service foresters can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to forest management decisions — and their advice is free,” he says. “They are professionals who will help you understand your property’s potential, identify problems, and develop plans to achieve your management goals.”
“Whether you want to improve populations of ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, bobcats, or songbirds, it’s very likely that the creation of some amount of young forest habitat will be recommended — in other words, the cutting of some mature trees,” he says. “Young forests benefit various species, and is often the missing habitat component in many areas of our state.”
Habitat change, while hindering some wildlife species, such as ruffed grouse in this case, often helps others. For instance, two other popular Ohio birds — wild turkeys and pileated woodpeckers — have benefited from the maturing of the Buckeye State’s forests, their populations increasing notably over the past half-century.
If you’d like to hear the drumming of a ruffed grouse, one can be heard on the Ruffed Grouse Society website.