Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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ID: Lessons learned from ruffed grouse research in Idaho

Idaho is rich with a variety of game birds, but one that has
taken the backseat in popularity to quail, chukars and pheasants is
the ruffed grouse, relegated to “camp meat” by some big game
hunters.

Yet a growing number of us realize and appreciate the challenges
of hunting “ruffies.” Unfortunately, little is known about Idaho’s
ruffed grouse, so during the past few years, Fish and Game
biologists have been studying a population on the Boise National
Forest north of Ola near Sage Hen Reservoir, an area known to
hunters as Game Management Unit 32A.

During the spring, male ruffed grouse perch atop downed logs and
rapidly flap or “drum” their wings to attract females. This is the
perfect time to take the pulse of the ruffed grouse population, by
counting these “drummers.” During boom years, counts in forests
east of the Rocky Mountains can peak on average at 33 drumming
males per square mile, whereas bust years average only 11 males;
the cycle repeats every 10 years or so. In Unit 32A, numbers have
held steady at around 13 males per square mile since 2007.

It is assumed that the number of female grouse equals that of
males, because they hatch at an even ratio. Females are harder to
count because they are secretive, so biologists tried a technique
of playing recordings of chicks in distress to attract hens into
the open. “Peeping” chicks are irresistible to females, which
instinctively want to help a crying chick. The technique yielded
much lower numbers of females than drumming males. More work is
needed on this technique before the conclusion is reached that
there are truthfully fewer females. More study, involving the
capture of hens to monitor nest success and chick survival, also
needs to be done in the future.

Male ruffed grouse aggressively defend their drumming logs from
other males, so a mirror facing the drummer will lure him into a
walk-in trap. During the study, 26 drummers were captured and
radio-collared with transmitters to track their movements. These
radio-marked males stayed within an average of 190 yards of their
drumming logs year round, finding all they needed for food and
cover within just over 100 acres of forest. When a male ruffed
grouse died, he was replaced on the same drumming log by a
different male the following year.

Without radio-collar technology, it might have been wrongly
assumed that it was the same drummer every year. Other data is
being analyzed to determine whether suitable ruffed grouse habitat
remains in short supply, a shortcoming that might explain why there
are so few grouse compared to boom years back East.

Hunters using the study area were interviewed, and it was
discovered that 70 percent of them were primarily hunting big game;
only 6 percent of these hunters said they would shoot a grouse if
they saw one. Of the grouse harvested, 22 percent were taken
incidentally by big game hunters and 69 percent by true grouse
hunters. Only one of the radio-marked grouse was harvested over the
past few years, so it appears that harvest rates are relatively
low.

About 66 percent of the grouse harvested were born the previous
spring. This is typical, as young game birds are the least wary,
and more abundant than adults. Young birds were about 20 percent
lighter than adults and had stubby, partially grown tails. This is
because opening day of the season is only 12 to 13 weeks from when
most ruffed grouse chicks hatch, and they don’t reach their full
adult size before the season opener. Eastern states start hunting
grouse after mid-September whereas Western states start before
mid-September. In Idaho, opening day has been September 1 since
1990 and August 30 since 2010.

Grouse harvest in Unit 32A peaks during the first week of the
season and again right before deer season begins, so lengthening
the season later into the winter would likely not affect grouse
numbers. Moving the season a few weeks later at the beginning of
the season likely would give juveniles more time to grow, but it is
debatable whether this would increase grouse numbers. An
experimental hunting season with a later opening date might help to
solve this riddle.

Unfortunately, research on Idaho’s ruffed grouse has ground to a
halt. Budgets are tight, and work is needed elsewhere on grouse in
more dire condition, namely greater sage-grouse and Columbian
sharp-tailed grouse. Perhaps one day, statewide ruffed grouse
research will be launched, and expanded to include the other two
forest grouse species, dusky grouse (formerly called blue grouse)
and spruce grouse (sometimes called Franklin’s grouse). Many
lessons remain to be learned so Fish and Game biologists can more
effectively manage this important Idaho resource.

David Musil is a wildlife research biologist in the Magic Valley
Region.

 

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