by Naomi K. Shapiro
I'm certain that most grouse hunters have already been inundated by the unstoppable numbers of studies, biological imperatives, warnings from state and federal regulatory agencies, animal rights groups, and on and on, regarding the ebb and flow of ruffed grouse populations. Rather than putting numbers up on charts, bar graphs, and computer simulations, with some boring "show and tells," how about a sampling of "real world' observations that experienced grouse hunters recognize as root causes of grouse population declines and upswings. It's not that complex!
Grouse populations rise and fall in annual cycles that run anywhere from seven to ten years. My own experience and after speaking to guides and hunters tell me that those cycles can and do vary by area, and conditions. Frankly, I've not been able to find one single determinative factor as to why ruffed grouse populations rise and fall with seeming regularity. It's isn't a new phenomenon at all, and has been going on for generations.
My research and experience however has brought me to the conclusion that there are several different factors which can determine the length, and breadth of these cycles.
First, one has to consider the predator population. Coyotes, fox, wolves, hawks, eagles, and feral cats (cats, as some know may be the the prime wilderness predator for birds, and fowl or all types, killing uncounted millions per year). And of course skunks and raccoons get into nests and steal eggs. Then there are hunters - -like us. We may be the number one predator when its comes to ruffed grouse. That's why there's something called "bag limits" and the like. And it's tough not to want to hunt ruffed grouse. To my mind, as with so many others, grouse is the absolute "primo" most delicious wild bird for the table, anywhere. If there's a large predator and/or hunter population in any given area, the ruffed grouse population can be decimated.
Then there's the weather. If there's a late spring, as often happens, the hatch never goes that well. Compound a late spring with a harsh winter, and the grouse population suffers. For instance, if there's a layer of snow on the ground with a hard crust, or freezing spring rains which harden the ground, grouse when landing can and do break their necks quite easily. Guide Phil Schweik says that he has seen that happen with some regularity over the years. Not to worry - -any grouse that is killed is soon dispatched by a predator or scavenger. Nothing goes to waste in nature.
Mother Nature manages herself quite well. If an area has lost its grouse population, the predators and hunters move on, giving that area time to replenish itself. Nature knows what it's doing. Populations of grouse rise and fall. Some years, hunters limit out in a very short time. And the next season, in the very same area, those same hunters may not hear one "drum", or even see one of these birds. It happens all the time. I've read that when there's an over population of grouse in any given area, nature can and often does provide some type of "disease" which will control that population, or because of too little forage the grouse will move on. So it's a compendium of reasons, which in the end cause these cycles. What hunters of course follow are the very cycles that are published and can predict, with some degree of certainty what area will have an increasing population in any given year- - and after that year, the population will start to ebb, until it bottoms-out and then starts to rise again. Thankfully, not all areas in any given state has the same population ebb and flow - -although it can happen. I lived on a lake in the middle of a national forest for 15 years, and vividly remember that some years the drumming from grouse was the loudest thing in the forest- - and then after a year or two, there was less, and then almost near silence. And again, the downward cycle would end, and start to rise again.
I am happy to note that grouse hunters recognize these cycles and generally don't complain about them, because they pretty well know going in that maybe "this year," the hunt won't be that productive. Guide Phil Schweik (with a smile, I might add) says that at least in his area (central Wisconsin), the grouse population is on the rise, and predicts that this coming season will be a good one. Then again, others may dispute that- -especially if they trek the woods during the season and spot nothing and hear nothing.
In conclusion, there is no ready answer. There is no one factor (at least, not usually) that causes the "hills and valleys" of these cycles. Best suggestion is to recognize that these cycles are with us, do your research as to where the cycles are in the ebb state, and try to find an area where the cycle is on an upswing - -remembering that whatever you do, you may still get skunked (haven't we all?!). Not always easy of course, but worth checking into. In the meantime, I'll be thinking of the next delicious braised ruffed grouse dinner I can look forward to.