Small Game Management in Georgia
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), often called the "king of the upland game birds," gets its name from the ruff of dark feathers on its neck which are commonly displayed by the male. The grouse is a beautiful bird with subtle, mottled coloration and is between the size of a quail and a pheasant.
The range of the ruffed grouse extends from Canada to northern Georgia. The grouse is a bird of the forest. In Georgia, huntable numbers are usually found in mountainous areas above 1,000 feet in elevation. These birds prefer brushy, second growth timber, shrubs and forest edges.
Grouse are usually found in extreme north Georgia. However, they have been found as far south as Clarke County and as far west as Floyd County. Grouse populations in Georgia are low, particularly when compared to populations in the northern states, such as Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Reproduction - The male ruffed grouse is polygamous (mating with more than one female). He attracts females by beating his wings together, known as "drumming," usually while standing on a fallen log in a dense thicket of mountain laurel or flame azalea. He also uses this sound to defend his territory against other males.
After mating, hens select a nest site at the base of a tree or other obstacle that provides them better protection from the rear while allowing good visibility in front. Nests are often located near a distinct forest edge. Hens usually lay 9-13 eggs with an average clutch size of 9-10 in the southeast. Nesting begins in early April and continues through mid-June.
Incubation of the eggs takes about 24-26 days. If the first nest is destroyed, grouse usually do not re-nest in the Appalachians. Hatching peaks in late May. Young grouse chicks are reared entirely by the hen. Studies in Georgia found that grouse preferred dense upland hardwood sapling areas and a variety of herbaceous foods for brood habitat.
Information regarding reproduction and population trends in the southern Appalachians is limited. Recent surveys indicate that a lower percentage of hens nest, clutch sizes are smaller and almost no renesting occurs if nests are destroyed resulting in lower productivity in the Appalachians as compared to the Great Lake States (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin).
Ruffed grouse nest failure is high with only about 25 percent of nest attempts successful. Because the nest is built on the ground it is more vulnerable to predators. Common nest predators include raccoons, opossums, bobcats, dogs, cats and snakes.
Mortality - Mortality is high during the first weeks of life with only one out of four juvenile grouse surviving. Recent Appalachian studies indicate that chick survival is very low in the southeast, particularly during the first few weeks after hatching. Predators cause half of this mortality. Once the birds reach adult size, they rarely die from disease, exposure or malnutrition. Predation eliminates 50-60 percent of the adult population each year.
In the northern part of their range, grouse populations cycle up and down during a ten-year period. Most researchers agree that the cycle involves changes in the rates of movement, reproduction or mortality. There is little evidence that the cycle occurs in the southern part of their range.
Over large areas, hunting does not seem to impact grouse populations. Currently studies are underway in the southeast to evaluate the effects of late season hunting on breeding populations of grouse. The early results from these studies have shown that hunting is only a small part of the total mortality. However, late season hunting may be additive to natural mortality.
Food Habits - Ruffed grouse eat both plants and animals, but feed primarily on plants. In the Southern Appalachians, they eat more green leaves than fruits or buds. Fall and winter food studies in Georgia found leaves from a variety of plants in 97 percent of the grouse collected. Leafy material made up 93 percent of the ingested food volume. Georgia grouse eat a wide variety of plants but mountain laurel, Christmas fern and greenbriar are the most important. Mountain laurel makes up one-third of the grouse's diet during the fall and winter. Other important foods include cinquefoil, goldenrod, foam flower, trailing arbutus and clover.
Previous studies have indicated that some of the important winter foods in the Southern Appalachians, such as mountain laurel, are low in nutrition when compared to aspen buds, which are important winter foods in the Great Lake states. Foods found in the Southeast are typically lower in protein, which may result in smaller clutch sizes, poorer hatching rates, and lower survival rates.
Behavior and Movement Patterns - The adult male ruffed grouse does not typically associate with other grouse outside the breeding season. Radio telemetry studies show that the male's home range is about 50 acres. The home range of males is considerably smaller than females. Males spend a lot of time near their drumming logs particularly during the spring and fall.
The home range for a hen is small during the incubation period. After hatching, hens with broods become very mobile as they search for good food and cover for their young chicks. Home ranges are larger for hens with broods than those without broods. Winter home ranges for hens may be as large as 100 acres.
Young grouse become more independent as they mature. By fall, broods break up and disperse into new habitats. During the winter, younger birds typically move more than adults as they search for food or territory.
Habitat Requirements - Grouse require cover for escape, nesting, brooding and protection from the weather in winter. Recent studies in the Appalachians found that grouse preferred habitat with high densities of saplings associated with 10 year-old hardwood clearcuts. They frequent more densely forested areas during the winter and the spring nesting seasons for cover and protection for broods. Open, brushy habitats are used during summer and fall because of greater food availability and higher insect populations. In north Georgia, evergreen shrub thickets and forest regeneration areas provide quality habitat for adult birds in the summer.
Drumming logs are very important to a male bird because much of an adult male's life is spent in the vicinity of chosen logs. Most males use more than one drumming log but usually have one primary log. Drumming logs typically are located in dense thickets on sloping hillsides, permitting a maximum field of view. Critical drumming site habitat includes a well dispersed shrub thicket understory.
Georgia grouse populations are usually 3-4 times lower than densities reported in many northern states. Poor habitat and less nutritious foods may contribute to lower southern populations. Lack of quality habitat makes grouse more susceptible to predation.
Ruffed grouse are a species that prefers second-growth forests with a brushy midstory. Recent habitat management studies concluded that clearcutting (even-aged silviculture) has a positive effect on grouse populations in oak-hickory forests. These studies found that grouse use of clearcuts for summer adult/brood habitat, fall and winter cover and drumming habitat is greatest 6-15 years following timber harvests.
Horizontal structure, like logging slash, blow-down trees or other forest debris, provides good cover in open areas. However, too much horizontal cover can be detrimental to grouse because it conceals predators, reduces the grouse's ability to see and impedes grouse movements on the forest floor.
Small clearcuts in mountain hardwoods are an effective forest management practice for improving grouse habitat. This technique requires removal of all trees except oak seedlings or saplings and small clumps of food-producing trees beneficial to grouse. Cuts of 5-20 acres are most desirable, but cuts up to 40 acres are acceptable if arranged in irregularly shaped strips or blocks. Highest grouse populations occur on areas where hardwood regeneration (6-15 years old) make up more than 14 percent of the total area.
Therefore, habitat management should include regeneration areas that maintain a good balance between partial canopy closure and high basal areas to enhance grouse habitat. Oak stands are most productive for grouse in the sapling stage when they provide dense understory and overhead cover. Many researchers agree that winter cover, not brood habitat, ultimately determines grouse population densities in many areas.
Seeded roads or linear forest openings are preferred over fields because they reduce grouse' susceptibility to predation. Cleanly mowed openings are less desirable than strip-mowed fields that leave some weed and brush cover remaining. Wildlife openings with a brushy edge can be created by leaving the outer few feet of openings un-mowed for one or two years. Brushy edges can be created to improve grouse habitat by "day lighting," or cutting down mature trees in 50-foot strips around fields or along roads.
Ruffed grouse are truly a challenge for upland game hunters in Georgia because they are found only in mountainous areas with rough terrain and thick brushy cover. The management of our north Georgia forests, particularly oaks, is critical in providing the cover and food necessary to support future ruffed grouse populations.
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