Ruffed grouse in danger of changing weather, deforestation

The state bird, the ruffed grouse, is one of the many species in Pennsylvania that has suffered from habitat loss — due in part to changing climate.

Ruffed grouse are one of 10 species of grouse native to North America. They are brownish colored, slightly larger than pigeons and live their entire lives in wooded areas.

Most ruffed grouse live where snow consistently covers the ground through winter, as the ruffed grouse are hearty, snow-loving, bud-eating birds.

They thrive during severe winters that decimate flocks of partridges, quail, pheasants and turkeys, according to the Ruffed Grouse Society. During mild winters, they are more vulnerable to predators and have more competition for food.

The most productive and most abundant ruffed grouse populations are those living where they spend most of the winter burrowed into 10 inches or more of soft, powdery snow, and emerge for only a few minutes once or twice a day to eat.

Ruffed grouse are considered snow lovers or “chionophiles,” according to the Ruffed Grouse Society. Ruffed Grouse tend to be less numerous and less productive if they live in regions where they cannot burrow in snow.

Ed Zygmunt, of Susquehanna County, is a member of the National Wildlife Federation and has hunted and fished in Pennsylvania for most of his life.

This past hunting season, Zygmunt said he saw only one ruffed grouse on all of his hunting trips across the state.

“I can’t bear to shoot any more grouse because their population is so declined,” he said. “Hunters are giving up even going out for them.”

Zygmunt said the hunting culture is changing entirely due to loss of small game populations. Some hunters are changing their focus on the species that they pursue.

For Zygmunt, that means hunting deer, turkey and black bear, which have much more stable populations.

However, Regional Wildlife Biologist Linda Ordiway, of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said while ruffed grouse habitats are indeed under threat, it is not as dire as it may appear — and the warming climate is only partially responsible for declining grouse populations.

“Ruffed grouse do better in colder climates, that is true,” Ordiway said. But “climate change is not the main contributing factor to grouse decline — it is lack of forest management and urban sprawl.”

According to a report by the state Game Commission, there are multiple factors that may influence grouse trends in Pennsylvania.

Changing weather patterns that include altered winter temperatures and precipitation; lack of structural and dietary diversity in the forest understory; and over-reliance upon unpredictable food sources such as acorns have all been identified as having potential deleterious effects on grouse populations.

She said changing habitats affect populated areas in different ways.

“The population across the state is very different,” Ordiway said. “The north central and north western parts are traditionally the densest populations — and even there are hot pockets within these areas.”

Hunters would have the most luck finding grouse in the northern portions of the state, which are the least urbanized and most forested areas.

“Grouse hunting is a cultural tradition that the Ruffed Grouse Society supports,” she said. “Working dogs on wild birds is very special and in Pennsylvania, we have that privilege. Many hunters reported good numbers of encounters this year.”

Ordiway said the most important thing Pennsylvanians can do to support the ruffed grouse population is to educate people about them.

“We all need to be ambassadors for young forests if we hunt, birdwatch, take pictures or enjoy wildlife encounters,” she said. “Things that don’t change die.”