By J. Oswald
It was once written that quail are considered an “indicator” species of upland game. Since they are so vulnerable to threats from predators, nasty weather and other dangers of upland life, it was claimed that the presence of quail is generally indicative of quality habitat. An abundance of quail signals even greater quality, diversity and overall health of the cover. Some other upland birds are known to be a bit more adaptable in their ability to scratch out a living on marginal ground. But the delicate quail… they will tell us how good the cover really is out there.
The same can be said for ruffed grouse. While they follow a population cycle of roughly ten years (the cause of which is subject of much debate and intrigue), grouse abundance can usually be attributed to the quality of their preferred surroundings. These regal birds have evolved over the ages to a highly specialized type of existence requiring optimal cover (and lots of it).
Much about the ruffed grouse’s physical attributes, from the downy feathers that insulate the nostrils and legs to the delicate white breast muscle that fuels its short-burst escape suggests that this is a high-performance bird. Grouse are designed to withstand long, cold nights and days consisting of avian predator attacks and short feeding windows. They are able to thrive in a desolate winter landscape where the only thing left to eat is the tiny aspen bud. Ruffs are challenged further to find the “right” stand of aspen dense enough to provide cover from overhead predators while allowing them to feed with limited movement. Make no mistake, it’s a tough living with little margin for error.
Understanding this, hunting grouse primarily becomes a matter of finding the right type of cover. Instead of hunting the birds, it is a matter of hunting habitat. The ability to identify productive habitat (and eliminate the miles in between) is largely what separates novice bird hunters from the consistently great ones. These are the guys with a Ph.D. in Grouse Botany, who speak as knowledgeably of stem density, dogwood varieties, and forest succession as they do shot shells or pickup trucks. They might be tenured forestry professors or retired carpenters, but they all share a strange dialect featuring an endless catalog of equivalents for what the rest of us commonly call “brush,” or “thick stuff.”
The ability to identify good grouse habitat is the most important skill a novice must develop. This skill can be greatly improved with the right combination of time afield in search of ruffs supplemented with a little study. Firsthand experience counts for a lot in this pursuit, but the learning curve can be greatly reduced by researching their seasonal patterns and dietary needs. With the Wisconsin season stretching from mid September until the last day of January, the hunter needs to be able to change tactics with confidence in order to find seasonally appropriate grouse cover.
For me, this extra confidence comes through offseason practice in plant and tree identification. Learning to identify early season shrubs like dogwood and other berry producers will help locate the berries grouse gorge themselves on in September and early October. Finding a clear cut choked with dogwood two seasons ago resulted in a first for one hunting partner: a young grouse stuffed to the beak with tiny white dogwood berries.
Later in the season as berries and other forage disappear with killing frosts, locating thick stands of young aspen, or popple, becomes important. Grouse transition into these areas as leaves fall to take advantage of the thick cover. Optimal stands of aspen are usually less than 10 years old with trunks no thicker than a soda can. Areas where these stands border or intermix with pine or tag alder can be outstanding, as grouse tend to prefer transition edges where they have quick options for concealment, thermal protection and escape.
I’m still earning my degree in Grouse Botany. The commute to class is at least 3 hours northbound, a small barrier to learning among many others. Rewards come with a few extra flushes each season, not to mention a few more interesting books for the home library. But the real accomplishment is the feeling of being more connected to the experience and the landscape where it all unfolds. After all, a little botany leads to a lot of woodsmanship