What has happened to the upland bird hunter, or more specifically, the grouse hunter?
A few decades ago, when I visited the overgrown woodlots, orchards and cedar swamps on a sunny weekend morning carrying my favorite shotgun, I’d be sharing it with other hunters. It wasn’t unusual to see a man in an orange upland hunting vest and hat following a nose-to-the-ground Brittany spaniel or German short-haired pointer through the heavy brush.
Today, those areas, if there are no houses on them, are usually all mine.
What happened to the upland bird hunters and the upland bird — the ruffed grouse?
I found several reasons for the decline of this bird in a “New York State Conservationist” magazine article several years ago. I didn’t know the ruffed grouse rarely lives a full year. The mortality rate between early-June hatching and maturity in mid-August is often more than 50 percent.
Obviously, predators such as coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls play important roles in the reduction of their numbers, as do severe weather and disease. Several years ago while bowhunting, I watched a coyote from my tree stand stalking something along an overgrown bank on the Kayaderosseras Creek. And he got what he was stalking — a plumb grouse. Unfortunately, it all happened about 100 yards from me. Otherwise, that grouse would have survived.
My most memorable grouse sighting experience took place on the edge of a cedar swamp in Warren County while I was snowshoe rabbit hunting with a group of friends and their beagles. It was a perfect morning, with about five to six inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground. The dogs had a rabbit on the run, and were chasing it across a ridge at least a half-mile from me.
Sitting down to wait, I saw a grouse outsmart a hawk intent on having him for brunch. The grouse in flight, with the hawk in hot pursuit, never slowed up as he crashed through the branches and dove head-first into the snow. Buried, he burrowed several feet beneath the snow surface, and then lay motionless. The hawk continued to circle, and finally gave up and flew away. It was only when I got up to move that the grouse broke cover and looked at me before winging off, but I enjoyed the show so much I decided not to shoot — that time.
Habitat is also a major factor in grouse survival. Good cover and good food will increase their survival substantially. Ruffed grouse, and other birds and wildlife, need cut forest openings that open the canopy and let in sunlight to promote new growth. However, New York state doesn’t tend to cut forests.
It’s estimated that the ruffed grouse population has declined 80 percent since the 1960s. I could not find the actual estimated number of grouse in the state, but I did find out that I am one of approximately 75,000 hunters who enjoy being unnerved by the sudden explosion of a grouse, often right under our feet. I was also surprised to find that the estimated annual ruffed grouse harvest is around 150,000, an average of two per hunter per year, which in my case is an accurate count.
Often incorrectly called a partridge, the ruffed grouse is widely distributed throughout the state. They generally spend most of their time on the ground and seldom fly more that 200 yards, but hunters soon find out that they have an uncanny ability to make hairpin turns in mid-flight, making them one of the most difficult birds to shoot in flight.
Their territory is usually not more than a few acres. Their feather coloration makes them almost invisible until the snowfall, which is when they’re the most vulnerable to hunters and predators. To help them navigate in snow, in the fall they grow bristles (pectinations) along the sides of their toes, like little snowshoes. But as a frequent hunter of the ruffed grouse in the snow, I still find them to be able to hide quite well in the woods.
FINDING AND HUNTING
The ideal areas to find the ruffed grouse include young hardwoods, field edges, abandoned farm/home sites, brushy creek bottoms and old crop fields. My three most productive areas over the years, in order of most success, have been cedar swamps, overgrown areas alongside of streams and overgrown logging roads, especially with overhanging evergreens.
And speaking of evergreens, if you find isolated evergreen patches within a stand of hardwoods and alder thickets, work them slowly and be ready. If there is snow cover, watch for those little tracks and tail-dragging marks leading underneath those snow-laden boughs.
When hunting without the aid of a dog, it’s best to have at least two hunters. Hunter orange, both coat and hat, is a must. Both must move in the same direction, at the same pace, and always within sight of each other. If you lose sight of each other, stop and call out to the other hunter, and do not continue hunting until you are within sight of each other again.
Obviously, if the bird breaks from cover, call out, and only shoot directly in front of you. And speaking of shooting, there really isn’t a lot of time for getting a good bead on your target; it’s primarily snap shooting. So I suggest prior to the hunt, you spend time at the skeet and/or sporting clay range, and keep both eyes open and get your head down on the stock when shooting.
I’ve been a volunteer in the Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log program for the Department of Environmental Conservation for several years. Last year, the 327 participating hunters reported information on more than 3,200 hunting trips totaling more than 9,000 hours afield throughout the state.
What I found disappointing was that of 75,000 grouse hunters, less than one half of 1 percent volunteered for this survey. Grouse hunters, this survey is going to help all of us. It only takes a few minutes to fill out this log after each hunt.
Here’s how you can help. E-mail [email protected], and put “Grouse Log” in the subject line, or call 402-8883.
These hunters flushed just over 10,000 grouse, and 856 were harvested, three of which were mine. A closer look at the totals showed that 323 were taken in the Northern Zone and 533 in the Southern. The average hours afield was 28 per hunter. As for the flush rates, the highest was 1.51 grouse per hour in the Adirondacks’ Tug Hill area, followed by 1.40 in the Catskill-Delaware Hills.
My grouse season this year has been the best in the past decade.
I have taken five grouse in about 10 trips afield, and actually, only one of those trips was with grouse in mind. I took one on a fall turkey hunt, two others while hunting rabbits and grouse and, most recently, two when hunting squirrels.
The last hunt was actually the easiest grouse hunt I’ve ever had.
I was set up on a small, hardwoods ridge overlooking a small swamp where I had previously found a number of squirrels, when shortly after sunup, off to my right, I saw a grouse gliding along the edge of the swamp. His path took him directly in front of me about 20 yards out, and I never had to get up. It was the first time I ever shot one while sitting. But it wasn’t my last. About a half-hour later, still sitting in the same spot, another grouse was headed right at me from across the swamp and at about the same distance, I had my second grouse of the day. It was quite a day.
When it comes to ruffed grouse hunting and the right gun, it’s just like all other types of hunting — there are as many answers as there are hunters. I hunt with a group that shoots everything from a .410 pump to a 12-gauge, semi-auto loader. My preference has been an old Ithaca feather-light 20-gauge pump with a fixed modified choke. I also use it for rabbits and squirrels. However, I recently bought a used Browning Citori 12-gauge over/under with 24-inch barrels, an English stock, and screw-in choke tubes, and I believe this may soon be my upland game shotgun. My suggestion would be to shoot whatever gun is most comfortable and accurate for you. I recommend using the lighter loads of number 61⁄2 or 7 shot. These are soft-feathered birds, and do not require heavy shotgun loads.
The New York state ruffed grouse season is open until Feb. 28. They make a tasty meal, and remember, the limit is only four a day. Good luck with that.
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