Exploring habitat for ruffed grouse and woodcock as it relates to cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hare.
There’s a lot of information online about the different habitat types that wild game species like ruffed grouse and cottontail rabbits use, which is definitely important to know for hunting or wildlife watching opportunities. But we don’t often talk about the similarities between them. Truth be told, there’s a lot of overlap between many wild game species, and that means effects to one habitat type can impact (for the better or worse) other species too.
Different Habitat Types
To illustrate, the four species and their habitats discussed below overlap in many areas of the country. Sure, ruffed grouse and snowshoe hares tend to occupy more of the same areas in northern latitudes, while American woodcock and cottontail rabbits occur in similar habitats and can be found in more southern latitudes. But in some areas, you can find all four. Here’s a high level recap of the habitats for each one.
Ruffed grouse prefer to use a variety of habitat types, which is often called a “mosaic” – think of a patchwork pattern. Grouse use cover types of different ages, structures, and species throughout the year. Small openings and log landings provide foraging opportunities (e.g., insects, clover, etc.) for young chicks, young (early successional) and dense forest types are important for nesting and brood cover, and mature forests offer foraging opportunities (e.g., catkins, berries/mast, mushrooms, etc.) and thermal cover (with conifers). Grouse do well in habitats with the following species: aspen, birch, alder, hazel, mixed conifers, or old apple orchards.
American woodcock habitat is similar to grouse habitat, but they need more openings and wetter soils. Woodcock use openings – such as small forest gaps, wetlands, or old fields – for their evening courtship flights. During these sky dances, the males rise in an ever higher circle and then plummet back to the ground. Woodcock feed on insects, but the bulk of their diet consists of earthworms, which are more common in deciduous forests with wet soils. Mature deciduous forests and shrubby alder thickets with open under-stories offer good foraging for woodcock. Abandoned fields, briar patches, brushy forest edges, and river corridors or bottom lands all offer good habitat.
Cottontail rabbits like similar habitat types as American woodcock or grouse. Old fields, abandoned farmsteads or orchards, briar patches, and young shrubby thickets are all prime spots to find a cottontail rabbit. Brush piles left from timber stand improvement projects or logging operations offer safe den sites from predators. Forest openings and trails offer spring and summer foraging opportunities (e.g., young forbs, grasses, etc.), while young shrubs provide winter browse.
Snowshoe hares are generally creatures of northern, boreal habitats. Conifer (e.g., spruce, fir, etc.) forests with low-hanging branches, brush piles, and woody debris are important for thermal cover and protection from predators, while young deciduous forests and shrubby areas are good browsing areas. Old field habitats, grassland openings, and small forest openings adjacent to mature forests are also used for summer food sources.
Habitat Improvement Work
As you can see, a lot of the same habitats are shared by these four species. You’ve probably experienced that while hunting before, possibly resulting in the kind of mixed-bag day you may remember for years. And that’s why there’s such an opportunity when it comes to habitat improvement projects. Forestry work (e.g., timber harvests, brush shearing, planting projects) can impact these four species at the same time – think of it as a four for one deal.
Of course Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society (RGS & AWS) is focused on its target species. But RGS & AWS values wildlife – game and non-game alike. So when they advise on an aspen timber harvest to benefit grouse, as an example, they know there will also be benefits to rabbits and hares due to improved habitats and thus healthier populations and a more diverse ecosystem. Carrying that aspen example forward:
- Immediately after a typical winter clear-cutting operation, there will be a lot of associated slash (i.e., tree branches, tops, etc.) on the ground. Rabbits and hares will both browse the bark off larger branches or consume whole twigs. They may also seek shelter in these brush piles to escape predators or the cold weather.
- During the first couple growing seasons, a flush of forbs (i.e., flowering plants), grasses, and brambles will produce spring and summer food sources for rabbits and hares. These areas also offer great foraging for grouse chicks, which key in on all the associated insect life. Woodcock may use these openings for their sky dances.
- As the aspen regenerates densely, grouse will use these areas to escape aerial predators like goshawks. Woodcock will forage for earthworms and insects beneath the thicket-like protection of the trees. Rabbits and hares will browse on the bark of growing trees or nip younger suckers as they come up.
- When the aspen forest matures and other tree and shrub species are present, grouse will still browse on buds and catkins from mature aspen trees or hazel in the under-story. Woodcock will still forage on the forest floor. Cottontails and snowshoes will continue to browse trees and shrubs, and find refuge in fallen tree tops or beneath conifer boughs.
And that’s only one example of how improving grouse habitat can help at least three other popular game species. Brush shearing, planting shrubs/trees, and thinning a forest can all have similar effects. More importantly, it’s not just these four species that benefit from improvement projects. There are many other young forest wildlife species that depend on the same habitats. So in effect, by conducting more habitat improvement projects, we can have a larger positive impact on numerous species at the same time which contributes to healthy forests and abundant wildlife.