A synopsis and review of the book Appalachian Ruffed Grouse: Ecology and Management
The Appalachian ruffed grouse population is like a classic, small-market major league baseball team battling the Yankees or Red Sox; the odds are against them because of a disparity of resources. Unlike their kin of the North Woods, Appalachian grouse lack aspen trees for food and cover, which Gordon Gullion, a leading expert on grouse during his lifetime, considered their prime habitat. Nevertheless, ruffed grouse are adaptable birds that have thrived in Appalachia for thousands of years.
Ecology and Management of Appalachian Ruffed Grouse, edited by Dean Stauffer and published in 2011, is the Moneyball for grouse conservation in the Appalachian region. Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, described how the low budget Oakland A’s were able to compete with wealthier baseball teams by creatively using data to get the most out of undervalued players. Ecology does something similar for Appalachian grouse conservation because it is the first research work to compile data and analysis specific to grouse in the region: what they eat and where they sleep, breed, live and die. The book seeks to understand the natural economy of the Appalachian grouse in order to best apply the relatively limited resources conservationists can leverage in protecting it.
The study looks at ruffed grouse populations on twelve sites in eight states of the central Appalachian region that are not usually cooed over in grouse hunting literature. These are the steep, rocky, dense coverts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Maryland. To gather data, the contributors captured 3,118 grouse and fit them with radio transmitters to help determine the grouse’s daily and seasonal activities. The researchers investigated ruffed grouse survival rates and causes of mortality, their nesting ecology, brooding ecology, food habits, nutrition, and dispersal. They close the book with recommendations on harvest and habitat management.
The study begins with a threat assessment and finds that avian predation caused 44% of ruffed grouse mortality between 1996-2002. Next on the list is mammal predation at 25%. Common Appalachian predators are the Cooper’s hawk, great horned owl, and the bobcat. The researchers learned that hunting resulted in 12% mortality, and they conclude that while “regulated sport harvest did not have a direct impact on ruffed grouse survival, there is evidence that disturbance from hunting influenced habitat selection and home range size of ruffed grouse in the Appalachian region.” The researchers address this human-based disturbance later in their look at harvest management.
Awareness of the grouse’s predators is vital, but the heart of the book is the study of where grouse thrive in the region. The weather in central Appalachia, like seasonal home ranges for grouse, is not static, but there is a consistency in the bird’s goals: “Regardless of season, grouse roost in dense vegetation to reduce the effect of predators and inclement weather.” Appalachian grouse hunters can intuit this finding. Unlike in the northern aspen region, Appalachian hunters course and blink through thick and thorny coverts. The writers of the chapter on habitat requirements, which include Ruffed Grouse Society President Ben Jones, summed this up when they wrote, “Reducing all the arcane habitat measurements and statistical analysis to something practical, we get: The more difficult it is to walk through, the better the habitat is.”
Understanding the pressures on Appalachian grouse and recognizing their ideal habitat leads the researchers to make recommendations to support the bird in ways that humans can control – hunting and habitat management. Though hunting does not appear to have a materially negative effect on the grouse population, human interaction, both hunting and vehicular traffic, certainly cause disturbances in where the grouse choose to dwell. The researchers recommend “closing roads from the start of the hunting season until the end of the early brood period (late June to mid-July).” Further, ruffed grouse management areas should be divided in “refuge” and “recreational locations.” Refuge areas can undergo habitat management and are located more than a quarter mile away from a road. Recreational areas are closer to roads and provide easier access, but, in one of the rare moments of non-technical language, the writers speculate that, “With a good dog in the lead and a willingness to enjoy a short hike during a cool, crisp winter day, grouse hunters will find these refuge areas a paradise on earth.”
Though harvest management is significant, habitat management is the core of any conservation efforts for ruffed grouse, and the book’s chapter on the topic delivers compelling and encouraging recommendations based on the researchers’ findings. They found that, “The vast acreage of forestland in the southern Appalachians suggests that the downward trend in ruffed grouse habitat and populations is reversible.” Forest management practices provide the key to positive, corrective habitat management. Oaks are the most common trees in Appalachia and have a large influence on the ecology of ruffed grouse in the region. Oaks produce acorns, which serve as a “critical food source” because they have a “high-energy content and are easily digested.” To be effective for grouse, oak stands must be managed or they will “gradually transition to stands dominated by other tree species” that are not suitable for grouse.
The ruffed grouse is a forest bird, and the writers conclude that providing “adequate early successional forest habitat by incorporating a sensible timber harvest rotation” is a crucial method for increasing grouse populations. The Appalachian ruffed grouse prefers 6-20 years age class in forest stands. Whether using clearcutting as a regeneration method, or other methods like shelterwood cuts, “it is critical that high-quality mast producing trees (especially oaks) are retained.” Forest management is a proactive method of building habitat that moves conservationists beyond wishful thinking.
“Ecology and Management of Appalachian Ruffed Grouse” successfully, if painstakingly, guides the reader through data-based findings to science-based recommendations for increasing grouse populations. The ruffed grouse of this region did not have its own Gordon Gullion until the research team behind this book came along and weaved a narrative to guide conservationists toward an effective strategy for helping to protect this ancient, scrappy Appalachian bird.
- Gullion, Gordon: “Grouse of the North Shore (Willow Creek Press: Wisconsin).
- Stauffer, Dean (ed.): “Ecology and Management of Appalachian Ruffed Grouse (Hancock House Publishers: Washington).