Home ImprovementNov 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Linda Roller
The avian stars of this show aren’t flashy, like bald eagles, or eye-catching, like a strutting turkey. They’re small birds, weighing about a pound, give or take a few ounces, and often invisible until they move, as they’re covered in a feather pattern that is the perfect camouflage for where they spend most of their time—the forest floor. This cousin to the domestic chicken is not only the state bird of Pennsylvania, but a joy for bird dogs and the people who hunt with them.
They are also part of a complex forest ecosystem, and their population is in a long decline, primarily due to a loss of habitat.
Morris area resident Joe Sulikoski hunts with bird dogs, and he was seeing that decline as he spent time in the woods. Instead of “grousing” about it, Joe sought out the reasons for the decline and became an advocate helping to develop habitat for the birds and for the sport of bird hunting.
In a perfect world, natural events like forest fires would have created a forest with patches of shrub and young trees just beginning to grow (known as early successional habitat, or ESH), along with areas of maturing and well-established trees. But, after the practice of clear-cutting more than a century ago, Pennsylvania’s re-grown woods have since been managed for a variety of purposes and it is, in many areas of the state, a mature forest. On public land, it is the forest that thousands love for hiking, camping, biking, and other outdoor activities. But it is not necessarily a diverse habitat for multiple species, including the ruffed grouse.
“People think grouse can live anywhere, but that’s just not so,” Joe says. They need a “disturbed” forest, a forest where there is a lot of light on the ground, where there is brush and small trees. That type of growth provides cover from the hawks and owls that feed on these birds, and in the winter gives them shelter from the cold winds. The grouse’s range is throughout Canada and the northern United States, primarily, and they do not migrate.
“Grouse are fine until the temperature reaches thirty degrees,” Joe continues. “Below that, they are using body fat to stay warm. At twenty degrees, they must have thermal cover.” While they do use snow as an insulator, the little pockets formed in low brushy areas add to the snow’s effectiveness as a natural blanket.
For grouse and other brush dwellers, an ideal forest mix is 20 percent ESH, 50 percent middle-aged trees, and 30 percent mature forest. Currently, only 10 percent of Penn’s Woods is in ESH, and a pair of mating grouse needs ten acres. It’s a startling change from seventy years ago, when as much as 50 percent of the forest was ESH. The result of this change has been a 30 percent decline in grouse in the last twenty years. Part of this decline is driven by who owns the forest. In Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the forest is in private hands.
Other factors have contributed to the decrease in grouse population. In the last few years, the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease that can infect birds as well as people, has lowered the hatch rate. But creating grouse-friendly habitat can offset some of the effects of this disease.
“Birds that contract West Nile can survive, with good habitat,” Joe points out. In 2016-2017, grouse in all areas of the state were at some of the lowest levels seen. But the recovery rate is better in areas where there is good habitat.
A couple of projects in the Tioga State Forest are providing the disturbed forest that these birds, and others like them, need. In the Landrus area, between Arnot and Morris, a process known as shelterwood cutting is in use. As its name suggests, shelterwood cutting means that some trees are cut, others are left standing to help reseed, and many of the cut trees are left on the forest floor to provide immediate and long-term shelter for wildlife. This work is done by hand, mimicking natural processes, without compacting the soil or making large ruts with heavy equipment. Erick Butters and Barry Koernig, both Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources employees involved in what is known as the Landrus Heights project, note that a grouse survey in this area in March of 2019 revealed forty-four drumming locations. Drumming, a sound made with rapid wing beats, is how male grouse proclaim their territory.
Forest fires, of course, do create ESH, but the damage to other natural resources can be extreme. A controlled burn in a perimeter that can be secured, though, provides the benefits without the problems. At Shin Hollow, in Gaines Township, DCNR did a burn of 148 acres, followed with placement of a fence to keep the deer out and protect the saplings planted.
“It’s a lot of work to plan for a fire. It’s risky,” Erick says. But, in less than a month after the fire, Joe and volunteers from Susquehanna River Valley Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society planted around 1,200 seedlings of hazelnut, crabapple, serviceberry and dogwood. A few months later, Barry saw grouse while hunting in the area. The fence, so important to protect this new habitat, cost over $20,000 for the materials alone, and was made possible with a grant and the help of private companies.
For Joe this is a passion, not only for his beloved grouse, but for wildlife in general.
“Over sixty different species of birds, mammals, and insects need ESH,” he notes.
Jim Hyland, district forester for Tioga State Forest, added that the work being done to create grouse habitat improves the health of the entire ecosystem.
“This scientific development of ESH is the biggest bang for the buck. And sportsmen like fly fishermen and hunters of ruffed grouse donate more and care more about the environment than most visitors to the state forests.”