Helping Grouse (and Rabbits) in NY

By Terry Belke for WGRZ Outdoors

New England cottontails, Appalachian cottontails, and American woodcock are just three of many species of wildlife that benefit when young forest and shrubland habitats are created or improved for ruffed grouse.

RUSHFORD, NY — The ruffed grouse is a ground dwelling bird that is a favorite of hunters and birders alike.

Masters of camouflage, these chicken-sized birds are usually heard before they are seen. Males make a distinctive drumming sound, especially in the spring. New York Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Emilio Rende explains how the males drum: "Grouse like to be in an area where there's a dense understory and usually like to be up on a platform like a drumming log. Basically by the action of their wings, it's just a high speed flapping of the wings that creates the air currents that make a thump thump thump thump sound and . . . that's what people hear."

ruffed grouse

Create young forest for ruffed grouse, and many other kinds of wildlife will show up in that dense habitat type./Ruffed Grouse Society

Although generally common in New York State, the ruffed grouse population is in decline in some areas, though not for the usual reasons such as habitat destruction. Rende says that grouse prefer younger forests with denser undergrowth as opposed to older forests that have less ground cover.

"There's probably many things that affect their population, [but] I would think the main thing is the upland forests are maturing to the point where there's no understory, so essentially the habitat is being lost and it's really affecting the population.”

The New York DEC has long been lending a hand to the grouse population. At Hanging Bog Wildlife Management Area near Rushford Lake, they have used timber management in an effort to create better habitat. That aspect of the program began in the 1980's. "We knew that we needed to create a young forest," says Rende, "a regenerative forest that is quite dense, so we looked at stem densities to determine the highest stem density that we need for ruffed grouse.”

This year marked the beginning of a three-year program to track the birds using tiny transmitters. Vincent Meyer, a DEC Fish & Wildlife technician, has been active in the program.

"Once we capture the bird, we put a radio tag around the neck, [a] little necklace style, and . . . it gives off beeps every half second I think," he says. "We have our antenna out there and we can listen to see where the beeps are coming from and we wave the antenna around and wherever the loudest beep is, that's the direction the bird is. So we walk toward the bird, and once we're within about thirty meters of the bird we start circling around the bird, be able to tell that the bird is within our circle, so we know where it's located.”

"We want to get some real-time information as far as what habitat types they do select," adds Rende.

It's a fascinating study which Rende says will help keep a longtime resident of the New York environment intact.

"It's important because obviously it's a very popular upland game bird, and not because of its 'huntability,' but I think it's just an interesting bird. It's critical to keep populations as healthy as we can."

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The New York Young Forest Initiative is creating young forest habitat for grouse and more than 60 other kinds of wildlife through carefully planned and conducted timber harvests on forested portions of wildlife management areas throughout the state.

Learn more about the New York Young Forest Initiative.