By Mark Herwig (originally printed in Covers magazine – Spring 2019)
A few years ago, a buddy and I made an interesting “discovery of the grouse kind” while hunting a state forest near my recreational land in northern Minnesota. We discovered what we later named “The Mountain Ash Covert.” Every time we passed a single, mature mountain ash tree on the trail, we flushed grouse and sometimes even bagged one. They were both in and around the 30-foot tree, eating its nutritious red berries.
The covert inspired me. “I should establish some mountain ash on my land!” Give to the grouse, and they will give to you come autumn!
But, where should you start?
I asked that question to Jon Steigerwaldt, RGS & AWS Forest Conservation Director – Western Great Lakes. He had some exciting insights for landowners who want to improve habitat for our favorite game bird.
Jon, a former forestry instructor at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, said planting the much-beloved oak tree is an excellent start to establish hard mast food for grouse.
“Grouse eat acorns when they are available, but they take some years to produce. In the white oak family, bur oak is a fast grower, and its acorns have the highest fat content and the lowest tannin (bitterness) content of any oak in the Great Lakes Region. Bur oaks also do well in a large variety of soil types, including dry and wet ground.”
After the white oak family, Jon recommends other Great Lakes Region native oaks such as the northern red oak, pin oak and black oak. Check first, though, if any oak is suitable for your area before planting.
I want to add here that I haven’t lost an oak I’ve planted on my place, as long as I fence them off from deer browsing. Jon said if deer are an issue, especially for slow-growing oaks which need protection over a longer period, fencing is a good strategy. “There are other products on the market too, including wire nets, tree cones, tree tubes and chemical treatments to keep deer from browsing.”
Ted Dick, acting forest habitat team leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, likes hazelnuts. “Hazelnuts are very good for grouse. It’s a great native understory species, one of the better things to plant in northern Minnesota, although they need two plants to produce nuts,” he said.
“Generally, the more plant diversity in a forest, the more readily it will adapt to change – dry and wet periods, for example,” Dick noted.
Also, space large hard mast trees to be sure they get enough water, nutrients and sun to grow well.
“Grouse eat a lot of things, but the best is dogwood,” Dick said. “But, I like planting anything in openings and on edges that produce an edible berry such as juneberries and high bush cranberries.”
Jon also likes winterberry, wild plum, native and crab apple trees and hawthorn, a member of the apple family. “Hawthorn is a short crab apple tree with large thorns. Grouse also love the thickets these plants create when they spread. But be careful not to overplant hawthorn because of the large thorns they produce. You want to be able to move through your land. Unlike wild plum that can overtake a forest understory, hawthorn is not big spreaders, so it’s ok to plant a few,” he said.
Jon noted that while woodcock don’t eat mast, they do like the thickets these plants create, especially winterberry, which grows well along the upland and wetland border that timberdoodles prefer.
Have a plan
Before buying any plants, however, Jon recommends first working with an accredited forester to develop a forest stewardship plan, or at least a planting plan for your property. Then check with your local natural resource agencies for low-cost or cost-shared tree packages.
If you want to “DIY” your mast project, Jon said the key thing to remember is trees need light to grow. “Don’t plant under a thick tree canopy, but rather do it in newly logged areas or other clearings. The south-facing sides of slopes and trails work well for oaks, hawthorns and apples.”
Jon likes using containerized or burlapped saplings or plugs. “I’ve had better success here than with bare rootstock, which needs more initial maintenance but is typically less expensive. A wet spring reduces the need to water bare rootstock, but a dry spring will kill most of them unless you water regularly. If you do plant bare rootstock, I recommend a commercial hydrating gel to be applied to the roots. It aids survivability, but there are never any guarantees,” he said.
All in all, Jon said small hard/soft mast plantings are not a silver bullet for grouse, but they augment or improve existing habitat. “Overall, creating young forest habitat for grouse and woodcock is best done by a reputable logging professional, by making landscape-level habitat improvements.”
The logging on my land (planned, supervised and financed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Bird Conservancy) verified Jon’s advice: the winterberry, dogwood and juneberry, for example, sprouted all over my land right after the logging, and the new dog hair aspen groves brought in the grouse, woodcock and other wildlife to boot!