Warmer temperatures, virus also taking their toll on game bird

By: Ad Garble, Bayjournal.com

Ruffed grouse, a strikingly beautiful bird that symbolizes wildness, is in trouble across its native range, including states in the Chesapeake Bay drainage.

The decline is growing in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, and biologists point to two main causes: widespread loss of young forest habitat and deaths from the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus.

Warmer winters aren’t helping matters either, because grouse burrow into snow banks for protection from predators and the cold.

They are a game bird associated with engraved shotguns and days spent walking mountains with dogs and friends, and concern over their unrelenting decline has prompted sportsmen’s groups and states to shift timbering priorities and take other steps as part of a nascent conservation movement to save the bird.

“A grouse sighting shouldn’t become a rare bird alert on birdwatcher lists,” said Linda Ordiway, a wildlife biologist in Pennsylvania with the Ruffed Grouse Society.

A 2017 assessment by Northeast game managers found that the grouse population declined by at least 30% in Bay states over the last three decades.

State Breeding Bird Atlas surveys tell a similar tale, showing that grouse numbers declined between 1989 and 2005 by 30% in Pennsylvania, 32% in Maryland and nearly 50% in West Virginia.

According to both biologists and hunters, some localized populations are winking out entirely.

Though in serious decline, ruffed grouse are the most widespread game birds in North America. (Pierre Gloutnay)
Though in serious decline, ruffed grouse are the most widespread game birds in North America. (Pierre Gloutnay)

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation says its grouse population has declined by an alarming 80% since the 1960s, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates the state has lost 20—30% of its grouse population in the last 4 years alone.

Eighteen of the 38 states where ruffed grouse are native now list it as a species of concern.

In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, grouse is listed as a species of greatest conservation need. Pennsylvania, where the ruffed grouse is the state bird, cut its grouse hunting season by more than half in 2017 in hopes of stemming the decline.

Other states have taken action, too. Indiana in 2019 placed the once-common ruffed grouse on its endangered species list after populations declined by 99% in the last 40 years. New Jersey, in the same year, canceled its grouse hunting season and is considering adding the bird to its endangered species list.

But advocates say more aggressive steps are needed. The Ruffed Grouse Society, a 59-year-old nonprofit conservation group with 17,000 members, thinks grouse may well be on their way to endangered status nationwide unless there is a concentrated effort to protect and expand their habitat.

“Until we have large-scale habitat management, the population is not going to come back up, to be brutally honest,” said Chris Ryan, a biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Some even question whether recovery is possible. The 2017 game managers’ report concluded, “It is possible that the quantity of high-quality habitat on the landscape has declined below some threshold to the point where the ability of grouse populations to recover has been suppressed.”

‘King of Thunder’

Ruffed grouse are round, plump birds slightly larger than pigeons. They are elusive birds — many people have never seen one, even though grouse is the most widely distributed game bird in North America. Estimating populations is difficult, and state resource hunters often rely on hunters for help.

Grouse plumage consists of an intricate blend of browns, blacks and grays that match the forest floor where they spend most of their lives. The birds’ fan-shaped tails and ruffed neck feathers are especially admired. Many paintings of grouse feature the pose of males when they puff up and fan out their tail feathers and neck “ruffs” to attract females or defend territories.

Grouse hunting long ago often meant a full game bag. (PA Game Commission)
Grouse hunting long ago often meant a full game bag. (PA Game Commission)

Grouse spend most of their time on the ground or small trees eating buds and do not migrate. They live out their lives within a few acres of woods, which is why new efforts to improve habitat pivot on doing the work where remaining grouse are located. Young grouse hens, though, may fly up to 15 miles looking for the place they may spend the rest of their lives.

One of their most identifiable behaviors is when the males “drum” in the spring, climbing on a log to beat their wings rapidly, creating a vacuum and a noise similar to what happens when lightning creates thunder. It is accurately compared to the sound of a distant tractor starting up. The sound of spring drumming is another aid in conducting population surveys.

In much of their native range, snow is part of a grouse’s existence. They depend on burrowing into the snow to hide from predators and withstand the cold. In the fall, they grow fleshy bristles along with their toes that act like snowshoes. It is one of the great sights in nature to see a grouse dive into a snowbank for the night.

Grouse are one of the most revered and challenging of game birds. They flush in a burst known to freeze a hunter into inaction and are sometimes called the “King of Thunder.” Once flushed, they zigzag through trees and thick cover.

“There’s a lot of laughter and stupidity that happens out there,” said grouse hunter Geoff Smith of Pennsylvania, describing hunters so startled by an explosive flush that errant shots strike nearby trees. “Lots of trees have lost their lives,” he joked.

Smith loves to walk the mountains and watch his trained dog work to flush a grouse. That happens, on good days, about twice an outing. Last year, he didn’t even take a shot, but he says that doesn’t diminish his passion for grouse hunting.

Bagging one reward a hunter with delectable game meat.

Lack of young forests

The main reason for the loss of grouse is clear: declining habitat — not from development, but the paucity of young forests and brushy areas that grouse need to survive.

Those areas are disappearing as abandoned farmland and areas targeted for massive clearcutting a century ago grow into mature forests.

Though grouse use all age classes of forests, they cannot do without thick stands of young forests 5–25 years old for cover, food, brood rearing and courting. Other species, such as turkeys, woodcock, rabbits and migrating warblers, also rely on such landscape.

“Grouse aren’t alone. It has other brothers and sisters out there in the landscape that are suffering,” said Gary Norman of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Part of the challenge in cultivating young forest habitat is public resistance to tree-cutting. Fears of destructive clearcutting and sometimes any degree of timbering can bring lawsuits and howls of protests. That has held back tree-cutting on national forests in particular. The result is that forests get older but less diversified, and thus less resilient, say wildlife managers from Bay states and the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey shows annual trend estimates for the ruffed grouse population in Northeastern states between 1983-2013.

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey shows annual trend estimates for the ruffed grouse population in Northeastern states between 1983-2013.

There’s also less fire on the forested landscape. For centuries, forest growth often was disturbed by fires caused by lightning strikes or intentionally set by Native Americans or settlers, leading to the young-forest habitat with the stands of seedlings and saplings that allowed grouse to thrive.

“You can love your forest to death,” said Lisa Williams, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s ruffed grouse biologist. “I always say that I am a tree hugger too, but, at the same time, I realize that baby trees need hugs, too. We have several dozen species that are in trouble because they need these young forests.”

It’s no coincidence that two major young-forest habitat projects that the Ruffed Grouse Society is spearheading in Pennsylvania include the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society as partners.

In Pennsylvania, only about 8% of public and private forests are made up of young forests – a 70-year-low.

West Nile virus 

If the habitat woes for grouse weren’t bad enough, it’s now been established that West Nile Virus has been killing grouse in Pennsylvania, and almost certainly in other Bay drainage states, since the early 2000s.

“For grouse, the virus became the straw that broke the camel’s back in many areas of the state,” said Williams, who did the pioneering research on the virus in Pennsylvania. “Many populations that had hung on as they lost habitat winked out after [it] hit.”

She decided to look into the problem after veteran grouse hunters started calling her in 2013, insisting that places, where they had hunted reliably for years, were suddenly grouseless.

She calls grouse hunters “unsung heroes” for alerting scientists to the new threat. “Hunters certainly are the biggest advocates for grouse,” she said, noting that many have voluntarily cut back on hunting or stopped altogether until grouse numbers rebound.

Research has shown that the species of mosquitoes that affect grouse are less prevalent at higher altitudes, perhaps pointing the way for targeted habitat work.

A ruffed grouse in full display stands in the snow. Snow banks are an important part of its winter habitat. (Hal Korber/PA Game Commission)
A ruffed grouse in full display stands in the snow. Snow banks are an important part of its winter habitat. (Hal Korber/PA Game Commission)

Diverse, healthy forests may be the best way to help grouse withstand the virus as studies have shown that their populations rebound faster from virus-related mortality in good habitat as opposed to marginal cover.

Climate change effects

Scientists fear that more frequent rainfall and warming temperatures from climate change will mean more breeding mosquitoes that worsen the effects of West Nile Virus on grouse.

Other effects of climate change have wildlife agencies worried as well.

The National Audubon Society predicts that if temperatures rise as much as projected, grouse will leave Pennsylvania altogether and not be found south of New York within 20 years — a prediction that many wildlife managers think is exaggerated.

It’s feared that reduced snowfall will deplete winter cover and knockdown populations in some states. And grouse won’t tolerate an area if it gets too warm in summer.

If early springs cause insects to emerge sooner, they may not be as plentiful for grouse chicks that depend on that high-protein source for nourishment. Grouse chicks are also vulnerable to the chilling effects of a cold spring rain; they are notorious for freezing to death in even moderately cool rain.

Rescue attempts

In New York, a worried Department of Environmental Conservation launched a Young Forest Initiative in 2015 to adjust timbering procedures in a way that will allow the regrowth of 12,000 acres into a stage of woods that features tree seedlings, saplings, woody vines, shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission increased by 50% the acreage of woods on state game lands that are cut to create emerging forest habitat. The agency also has hired more people to work with owners of private forests, which account for 71% of all woodland in the state.

A new online tool in the state, called Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool, flags areas for ideal grouse habitat and invites private landowners to seek free technical support to make habitat improvements.

Young forests are vital to grouse survival. (PA Game Commission)
Young forests are vital to grouse survival. (PA Game Commission)

In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has five biologists who work full-time with private landowners on forest management, including creating early successional woods.

An increase in the controlled burning of natural areas could also help grouse recover, as it increasingly becomes a tool in Bay states to boost plant life on the forest floor.

In West Virginia, resource managers are establishing early successional forest habitat along gas and power line rights-of-way and around field edges on state lands.

State wildlife managers and sportsmen’s groups are united in their belief that the best hope of getting grouse to rebound to viable numbers is creating that critical young forest habitat.

“Those birds don’t move. They don’t migrate. They die within 2 or 3 miles from where they hatch,” said Williams of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “We have to worry about those birds finding each other to reproduce. We have got to get active in creating habitat.”

And it has to be done on a landscape level, not isolated projects, for grouse to find each other, stressed Mike Schiavone, game section leader for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

It won’t be easy. Timbering costs money. The commercial logging market is down. Most woods are privately owned. And improvements have to be done in the right places.

“Many species you can save by just preserving an area and stopping hunting,” said Bob Long, upland game bird biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “It’s a totally different type of effort that you have when you’re trying to restore a species that depends on human disturbance. It’s not a popular thing. The public at large doesn’t like cutting trees.”

Still, as Field & Stream’s Phil Bourjaily wrote recently, “We have to roll up our sleeves, fire up our chainsaws, raise our voices and work to make sure we aren’t witnessing the great entertainer’s final curtain call.”