The history, significance and future of ruffed grouse in the Catskills.
A sense of loss is wedded to hunting. When we’re in the woods, we fight the inevitable passing of time like characters in a tragedy whose ending is assured. Though it’s not the reason why we hunt, death is the logical conclusion of the enterprise, and a tinge of mourning follows the balletic descent of a shot grouse. Our beloved bird dogs barrel through the brush, and we smile, but we know they only have so many seasons in their short lives, and we want to hold on to those moments we share with them. We also develop an attachment to grouse habitat itself. Will birds still be here next year, or will the woods have aged just enough to crowd them out? Will parcelization decrease the integrity of the remaining habitat?
My work takes me to Main Streets throughout the Catskills of New York. I used to vacation there as a child. My wife is from the region and we often visit her mother there. I hunt ruffed grouse in the Catskills; it’s where my dog and I saw our first one. But like the hairline of an aging man, habitat for grouse in the region is rapidly receding. If we don’t act, Catskills ruffed grouse will fade and exist only in the memories of those moments we cling to.
“The woods seem good to be in where I find him.”
The literary naturalist John Burroughs was the bard of the Catskills. During his life, the Roxbury, New York native was a famous writer and friend to Walt Whitman, John Muir, Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt. He helped introduce America to nature writing. Though Burroughs wasn’t much of a hunter (he was actually a prolific angler), his writing taught me to approach hunting as a naturalist would, to encounter it with conscious observation and sensitivity. Read his essay called “The Heart of the Southern Catskills” and you’ll see this beautiful part of the country over his shoulders.
Burroughs loved ruffed grouse. In Wake Robin, which Teddy Roosevelt described as embodying “all that was good and important in life,” Burroughs wrote, “At sunset the grouse began to drum in all parts of the woods about the lake. I could hear five at one time, thump, thump, thump, thump, thr-r-r-r-r-r-rr. It was a homely, welcome sound.”
Burroughs believed the presence of grouse in his cherished Catskills woods meant those forests were healthy. “The partridge is one of our native and most characteristic birds,” he wrote in 1871’s Bird Stories. “The woods seem good to be in where I find him. He gives a habitable air to the forest, and one feels as if the rightful occupant were really at home. The woods where I do not find him seem to want something, as if suffering from some neglect of Nature.” I imagine that if Burroughs saw the paltry grouse population of the Catskills today, he would give Teddy Roosevelt an earful of demands.
New York State and the Young Forest Initiative
Since 2015, the New York State Department of Conservation (NYS DEC) has been working to create habitat for ruffed grouse and other target species that benefit from young forest habitat. The NYS DEC, with assistance from the Ruffed Grouse Society, recently cut and managed nearly 100 forested acres in the Catskills to create habitat where grouse can thrive. Burroughs would be proud of the actions underway, but it’s not enough. We can’t sit by and expect the NYS DEC to remain active in its Young Forest Initiative without our participation.
Politicians react to the opinions of their constituents, especially the loudest of the bunch. Instead of idly indulging in memories, we should be fighting for the future of the species. Just as Burroughs would, call your State representatives and senators. Tell them that you support the State’s participation in the Young Forest Initiative and that you want even more State-funded efforts to manage our forests for wildlife. Join your local RGS chapter and find ways to volunteer and help our State agencies do their work. Take a look at the Upland Bird Hunt in Pennsylvania to see what an RGS chapter is capable of.
Hunting season is a brief part of the year. Anyone stepping into the woods to hunt grouse should spend some of the long off-season working to ensure the next generation can encounter grouse in the Catskills, and beyond, and make the memories we record in our hearts and journals.
by John Burroughs
List the booming from afar,
Soft as hum of roving bee,
Vague as when on distant bar
Fall the cataracts of the sea.
Yet again, a sound astray,
Was it the humming of the mill?
Was it cannon leagues away?
Or dynamite beyond the hill?
‘T is the grouse with kindled soul,
Wistful of his mate and nest,
Sounding forth his vernal roll
On his love-enkindled breast.
List his fervid morning drum,
List his summons soft and deep,
Calling Spice-bush till she come,
Waking Bloodroot from her sleep.
Ah! ruffled drummer, let thy wing
Beat a march the days will heed,
Wake and spur the tardy spring,
Till minstrel voices jocund ring,
And spring is spring in very deed.