Pleasant surprise: Ruffed grouse counts up unexpectedly from last year 

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Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring population counts are up from last year, which was not expected during the current declining phase of the 10-year cycle — a pattern recorded for 72 years.

“While ruffed grouse drumming counts are up, they are not a reliable way to predict the fall hunting season,” said Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We also recorded an increase in sharp-tailed grouse in east-central Minnesota, which is positive this year but could be short-lived.”

Unexpectedly high ruffed grouse counts this year may have resulted from the warm temperatures and dry conditions last year during May and June, which favors high nest success and chick survival. Snow conditions also were favorable during winter for roosting throughout much of the core of grouse range.

The DNR and its partners use spring drumming counts to help monitor the ruffed grouse breeding population through time. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.

“In a typical year, we have 16 cooperating organizations providing folks to help us count grouse drumming,” Roy said. “We are grateful to our federal and tribal partners for their assistance in completing routes.”

Historically, these spring counts were related to the fall population; however, in recent years, drumming counts have not reliably predicted the fall hunting season.

The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer. Nesting success and chick survival are influenced by many factors, including weather during May and June, which has been more extreme in recent years, and other factors, including disease and predators. This year in May and June, heavy rainfall and flooding affected much of the core of ruffed grouse range.

The ruffed grouse survey report can be found on the grouse management page of the DNR website.

Sharp-tailed grouse population increases in east-central Minnesota

Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse population has increased significantly in the east-central portion of the state, according to spring population counts conducted by the DNR and cooperating organizations.

The population increase follows the closure of the 2021 hunting season in east-central Minnesota, but does not signify long-term recovery of the population. The number of leks — traditional male display areas also called dancing grounds — counted in the east-central region remains low and the leks are smaller than those in areas with abundant sharp-tailed grouse.

“The increase in the east-central region should be regarded cautiously, as warm, dry conditions during spring and summer 2021, followed by favorable winter snow roosting conditions, likely resulted in strong nest success, chick survival and overwinter survival,” Roy said. “But we know threats remain for the birds in this area, including habitat loss, as well as more random events like strong storms, flooding and disease outbreaks.”

To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on leks. This year’s statewide average of 12.2 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, but a drop in the number of leks in the east-central region, in the absence of changes in survey effort, indicate that the population has dropped significantly in that portion of the range. These changes are thought to be driven largely by habitat loss.

“We’ve known for some time that in the east-central region the large, open areas of grassland and brushland that sharp-tailed grouse need are changing and becoming less suitable,” Roy said. “These birds require areas of approximately one to three square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitats often requires cooperation between multiple landowners.”

The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society (MSGS), Pheasants Forever and others have collaborated with the DNR on targeted habitat management for sharp-tailed grouse in the east-central range and remain committed to enhancing open-land habitats.

The sharp-tailed grouse survey report can be found on the grouse management page.

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