Sep 10, 2014

Wisconsin Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock Hunting Outlook

By: Gary Zimmer 

The winter of 2013-14, with its frigid temperatures and deep snows, was rough on most wildlife species in the Badger State.  However, two important game bird species that appeared to handle the conditions quite well were ruffed grouse and woodcock.  The latter follows the example of many of our seasonal residents and heads south for the winter, spending the frozen time of the year in the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.  Ruffed grouse, on the other hand, are well adapted for our northern winters and stay right at home here in Wisconsin.  The deep fluffy snows that covered much of the state this past winter provided great insulation for the birds as they have the ability to burrow into the snow, roosting there for many hours and sometimes even days at a time.  Temperatures surrounding the birds in a snow roost are often 30 or more degrees warmer than temperatures above the snow. 

As a result, ruffed grouse, especially in Northern Wisconsin, appeared to survive the winter quite well and the spring drumming counts illustrated that, showing a small 3 percent increase in drummer numbers from 2013.  This increase was unexpected after 2013’s cold, wet spring and below normal grouse brood production.  In the central part of the state where snow levels were not as consistent, spring drummer numbers were down 23 percent from 2013.  Overall, the results from the statewide grouse drumming counts showed a 1 percent decrease.

Even though we are near the bottom of the 10-year ruffed grouse cycle, there are some signs of optimism for Wisconsin grouse hunters.  It appears that this year’s long-lasting snowfall delayed nesting for the birds at least 7 to 10 days later than “normal.” Most grouse nests hatched in early June when warmer conditions were present and made conditions quite favorable for brood development.  Many broods observed were good sized, 8 to 12 young per brood were quite common giving an indication that hunters should have a fall hunt comparable, or slightly above last year.  Only in far northwestern Wisconsin, where repeated rains may have been too much for some young birds to handle, and the central forest region where spring drummer numbers declined, do we expect to see a reduction in fall grouse numbers.

Drummer densities on the two long-term ruffed grouse research areas, the Sandhill Wildlife Area in Wood County and the Stone Lake Experimental Area in Oneida County, showed mixed results; Stone Lake showed a decrease of 6 percent and Sandhill an increase of 24 percent from 2013 levels.  It is interesting that this is almost the opposite of what was found in the standardized drumming counts from their regions!

An estimated 100,000 hunters are expected to seek out this challenging native game bird in the forests of Wisconsin this fall. The state continues to be an important destination point for out-of-state ruffed grouse hunters as it continues to provide some of the best ruffed grouse hunting remaining in the country.  The ample amount of land open for public hunting in the north is a draw for grouse hunters and ongoing timber management on public and private forest lands continue to maintain important habitat for these birds.

Hunters in search of what some call the “King of the Native Upland Game Birds” look to thick, dense young forest habitat. In the northern part of the state, young aspen stands 10 to 20 years of age hold the most birds.  The birds seek aspen or other similar habitat that provides the dense shrubby cover that provides security from predators.  In the south, aspen isn’t as abundant and the birds can be found in young oak/hickory stands or shrubby woodlot edges.

Quality cover combined with a nearby food source increases your chances of finding grouse.  Popular fall grouse foods in Wisconsin include acorns, clover leaves, wild strawberry leaves, crab apples, thorn apples, hazelnut catkins, and wild grapes.  Inspecting the crops of harvested grouse will quickly show you the preferred food source in the area, and birds will stay close to these areas until that food source dries up.

Ruffed grouse hunters frequently target woodcock since both species are often found in similar habitats.  While the woodcock harvest in Wisconsin is usually impacted by the number of migrant birds moving through the state in mid-October as they begin their flights to the southern wintering grounds, a look at the spring singing ground counts provided each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that we can expect a fall woodcock population lower than in 2013.  Count results from 80 routes across the state showed a 22 percent decrease in singing males from last year.  However, there may be some good news for woodcock hunters this fall.  Nesting and brood rearing conditions this year were much more favorable for the birds than in 2013, and there has been an increase in the number of broods observed.  Even the wet periods that were encountered in late May posed little problem for young woodcock. Unlike their grouse brothers, woodcock young typically do quite well during wet periods as earthworms, which make up a majority of their diet, are easy to find.

Like ruffed grouse, woodcock can be found in thick, dense cover.  Young aspen, often less than 10 years old or alder thickets are favorite haunts of these birds.  Due to its preference for earthworms, woodcock can be found in areas of moist soils within these thick areas.  Dry conditions found during most Wisconsin fall hunting seasons often restrict woodcock use.  In those cases, look for woodcock along stream or wetland edges where the soils are moist and the birds are able to probe for food. 

Good luck this fall in your quest for two of our finest upland game birds. Ruffed grouse hunting season begins on September 13 across the majority of the state and continues until January 31.  In Zone B, located in southeastern Wisconsin, the season is limited to October 18 through December 8.  Woodcock season begins on September 20 and continues until November 3.

Gary Zimmer is a Wildlife Biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society and lives in Laona, Wisconsin.