Each fall in New York 25,000-30,000 hunters take to the field in pursuit of ruffed grouse, making them the second most popular game bird behind wild turkeys. Despite declines in their numbers over the past 40 years, ruffed grouse are still common, particularly in younger forests. They provide excellent hunting opportunities.
DEC coordinates two survey efforts with cooperating hunters to help track grouse distribution and abundance:
- Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log - this survey asks hunters to record their grouse hunting effort and the number of birds flushed. This allows us to estimate flush rates (grouse flushed/hour), which are used to monitor changes in grouse populations.
- Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey - this survey asks turkey hunters to record the number of grouse they hear drumming during the spring turkey season. The drumming survey provides a harvest-independent index of grouse distribution and abundance during the critical breeding season in the spring.
If you would like to participate in either survey, please download a survey form from the grouse log or drumming survey web pages, contact us by phone at (518) 402-8883, or send an email.
Ruffed Grouse Parts Collection
We are requesting assistance from hunters in a study of ruffed grouse recruitment (the number of young produced per adult female). We are seeking rump, wing, and tail feathers from birds taken during the season so we can identify the age and sex composition of the harvest. Information on recruitment is an important part of assessing the well-being of the grouse population.
As part of a multi-state effort to study West Nile Virus in grouse populations, we are also requesting hunters to submit blood samples from harvested birds.
To learn more about these efforts or to sign-up to receive materials for submitting feather and blood samples, please contact us via e-mail or call (518) 402-8929.
Spruce Grouse vs. Ruffed Grouse
Be mindful of the presence of the state-endangered spruce grouse while hunting ruffed grouse in Wildlife Management Units 5C, 5F, 6F, and 6J. Identify your target before you shoot! DEC biologists have supplemented existing populations of spruce grouse in New York to increase genetic diversity and help aid in the recovery of the State's population.
Spruce grouse are frequently seen along roadsides during the fall eating gravel. Spruce grouse are similar in size to ruffed grouse, but have slightly different appearances:
- Both male and female spruce grouse have a chestnut-colored tail band on a blackish tail that contrasts with the ruffed grouse's dark tail band on a brown or gray tail.
- Spruce grouse tend to sit still or fly to a nearby branch when disturbed unless disturbed by dogs, in which case they may fly away.
- Male spruce grouse appear darker than females and have a red eye comb that can be seen only during the breeding season (May).
- Female spruce grouse are very similar in appearance to ruffed grouse in size and coloration. Differences in the tail band are evident between the two species (see below).
Attention Woodcock Hunters: You may not shoot woodcock unless you have registered in the Harvest Information Program (HIP). To register, call 1-866-426-3778 or go to the Harvest Information Program website.
If you are interested in hunting public lands such as State Forests or Wildlife Management Areas, contact the regional DEC biologist or forester where you want to hunt. They can tell you about areas with active timber management, or areas where there has been timber management in the past 10 years or so. They may even be able to offer tips on the best coverts (areas with cover) within a given area. Visit the DEC website for maps or other information on specific areas or request this information from your regional DEC office.
Based on data collected from the Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log, it appears that several regions tend to have higher grouse densities, so finding and gaining access to suitable habitats in those areas may be most rewarding (see highlighted area of map).
Combining data from the first four seasons of the grouse hunting log allows us to identify a region that stretches from the St. Lawrence Valley in the north through the Otsego-Delaware Hills and the East Appalachian Plateau in the southern tier where we observe flush rates (grouse flushed/hour) similar to or above the statewide average of 1.1 birds/hour (this is illustrated by the Wildlife Management Units highlighted in orange on the map). This region also coincides with portions of New York that have proportionally greater amounts of early successional habitat due to timber harvest, abandoned agricultural land, or other environmental factors (e.g., soil type, natural disturbances such as storms). Wildlife Management Units in blue had either too few observations for analysis (e.g., WMU 4N) or had below-average flush rates (e.g., WMUs 9H, 9J, 9M, 9P, and 9W in western NY).
About 85% of the land in New York State is privately owned, so its likely that some of the best grouse coverts may be on private lands. The best strategy may be simply to ask landowners for permission to hunt grouse.
Ruffed Grouse Population Management
Reasons for Population Changes
Ruffed grouse populations in New York have been drastically declining over the past 40 years. Several different survey efforts (U.S. Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey, New York State Breeding Bird Atlas) support what grouse hunters have know for a long time. Breeding Bird Survey data indicate that ruffed grouse populations in New York have declined by more than 75% since the 1960s, or about -4.7%/year. The primary reasons for population declines are habitat quantity and quality. During the 1960s and 70s, many agricultural lands that had been abandoned were reverting to young forests-ideal habitat for ruffed grouse. Today, these forests have reached maturity, a less than ideal condition for grouse, woodcock, and other birds that require early successional habitats.
Greatest population densities for grouse tends to be:
- areas where there is good habitat such as agricultural areas recently abandoned (within the last 10-20 years);
- areas with active timber management (particularly "even-aged" management such as clear cuts); and
- areas where habitats are maintained in an early successional stage due to environmental factors such as soil type, moisture, and natural disturbance (e.g., storms, fire, disease).
Having previously used New York statewide grouse harvest estimates as an index to grouse populations, we haven't noticed a 10-year cycle population trend such as found in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. These states have surveyed over large geographic scales (statewide and intrastate regions), though it is unclear whether the same results can be found at smaller scales (town or county). Alternatively, there may be population cycles operating at a geographic scale larger (northeastern U.S.) or smaller (St. Lawrence Valley) than currently being measured.
It is still unclear on exactly what drives these cycles, but many scientists think it involves a complex interaction of:
- habitat quality (stem density, food distribution, and abundance)
- predation on nests and broods
- insect damage (tree-defoliating tent caterpillars)
- other miscellaneous factors
Predation can play a role in limiting grouse populations; however, it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests, and broods more vulnerable to predation. Grouse have evolved behaviors and reproductive strategies to cope with predation, but in highly fragmented landscapes predators may be more efficient in finding grouse and their nests. This is particularly true for nest predators such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums. In areas with poor habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, grouse and chicks may be more vulnerable to avian predators such as hawks and owls. Large predators, such as coyotes, may be impacting game species on a local scale, but it is unclear whether they are affecting populations in large regions of New York or statewide.
In an effort to answer some of the common questions about grouse populations, DEC coordinates two surveys and collects grouse parts from hunter-killed birds. The Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log asks grouse hunters to record the number of birds flushed per hour of hunting effort. The Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey asks turkey hunters to record all drumming male grouse observed while they are afield during the month of May. We hope that, when viewed over time and various spatial scales, both of these surveys will help us identify trends in grouse distribution and abundance. The grouse parts collection allows us to evaluate the age and sex composition of the harvest and estimate recruitment (number of young per adult female) for different regions of the state. To learn more or to participate, e-mail us or call (518) 402-8883.
In 2007, DEC initiated a cooperative research project with SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry to determine fall-winter survival and mortality of ruffed grouse in two areas of New York State with relatively high hunting pressure and different degrees of habitat fragmentation. This study was the first assessment of ruffed grouse survival and harvest mortality in New York in more than 50 years. We monitored fall-winter survival of 169 radio-marked ruffed grouse at two study areas in New York differing in forest age and composition. Fewer than 11% of radio-marked birds were harvested, and seasonal survival was similar at the two study areas in both study years (0.38 and 0.51, 2007-08; 0.48 and 0.48, 2008-09). Predation, particularly by raptors, was the largest source of mortality, but locations of predation events were not associated with forest age or configuration within 300 meters. We found no evidence to support a reduction in harvest limits, although our harvest estimates may have been biased low.
Restoring habitat usually means cutting timber. This has an indirect benefit of generating revenue for the landowner, but it also means working with a professional forester to have the "right" trees cut. All timber cuts are not created equal. Depending on what your objectives are, what trees are harvested, and how they are harvested may be very different. If you are interested in creating good habitat for grouse, woodcock, or other early successional wildlife species, it is important that you work with a professional forester. You can also contact your regional DEC office to talk to a state forester. They will help you develop a management plan for your property that will include sustainable management of your forest stand that will follow strict "Best Management Practices" (BMPs). Sustainable forestry that follows BMPs is the best way to produce benefits for you and the wildlife on your land now and in the future.
More information about managing your forest for wildlife can be found through Cornell University's Master Forest Owner/COVERTS Program. Since 1991, the MFO/COVERTS Program has made on-site visits to over 1,000 New York forest owners to furnish technical guidance and assist with management plans. This program provides the information and encouragement necessary to help you manage your forest holdings wisely.