A Ruffed Way to Go

This story was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Perhaps you’ve heard it—you’re walking through the woods, when a bass note suddenly breaks through the forest chatter. Whoop.

The sound might not register at first but, in an instant, it comes again. Whoop. And again and again. Whoop. Whoop.

The noise then crescendos and accelerandos into a frantic rhythm, like a tiny helicopter about to take off. Whoopwhoopwhoopwhoopwhoopwhoop.

And then it’s gone.

The sound might not be impressive to human ears. But to a ruffed grouse, this “drumming” is the equivalent to Fonzie’s finger snap on Happy Days—other guys scatter and the girls all swoon.

A ruffed grouse cock is fiercely territorial, keeping a six- to 10-acre home range all to himself and one or two hens. He displays his dominance and tries to attract females by climbing onto a log and making that whoopwhoopwhoop thumping noise. But contrary to common misconception, the sound does not come from thumping the log. The downed tree is just a stage. The drumming comes from the bird’s wings beating against his chest.

If you’ve heard the sound, count yourself lucky. In recent years, it’s become a scarcer and scarcer element of West Virginia’s forest soundscape.

Where Did They Go?

It’s unclear how many grouse remain in the state. Up until a few years ago, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources conducted a statewide survey of drumming males, although that only provided an index to measure the health of the population. But ask any bird biologist or upland bird hunter and they’ll tell you—populations have declined severely over the past few decades.

There has been some research, particularly in Pennsylvania, that ties grouse population declines to disease, specifically West Nile virus. But Mike Peters, game bird and small game project coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, says there’s little evidence disease is the main cause for grouse population declines in West Virginia. “The driving force is habitat,” he says. “If a species has the right habitat, it’ll withstand disease.”

Grouse prefer young-growth forests thick with plant life. This provides good cover from the wind as well as camouflage from predators. Those kinds of habitats are increasingly difficult to find in West Virginia, however.

In northern latitudes, grouse live on aspen leaves and buds. But here in Appalachia, the birds have a more varied diet because of what’s available—including cherries, berries, bugs, beechnuts, and acorns.

At the turn of the 20th century, the state had more than 90,000 farms covering nearly two-thirds of the state. Many of those farms slowly began to revert back to forest as rural people left their farms for urban areas. That left West Virginia covered with young forests where grouse could thrive. “It was just perfect conditions,” Peters says.

West Virginia is now about 90 percent forested. But, for the most part, it’s the wrong kind of forest. “We have lots of forest, but it’s a lot of mature forests,” Peters says. Mature forests aren’t as thick, so they don’t provide grouse adequate protection, leaving them open to predation and the elements.

“It kind of seemed like the ’80s was a peak for grouse populations,” says Linda Ordiway, regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. “It was also the most recent peak for commercial timber harvest.”

Grouse lay between nine and 14 buff-colored eggs at a time. The birds are precocial, meaning they hatch with feathers and are ready to leave the nest to feed as soon as they hatch.

Natural phenomena like wildfires allow forests to refresh themselves. But since humans have suppressed wildfires for the past century or so, the clock is no longer being reset.

“What’s an aesthetically pleasing forest? Most people are going to say big trees and ferns. But what’s the most productive forest?” Ordiway asks. Usually, the most productive forest is a 10-to-20-year-old forest, thick with trees and undergrowth.

One way to maintain that kind of environment is through timber management. But members of the public are usually averse to cutting down big, old trees. “They’ve confused the two terms ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation,’” Ordiway says. “We can love a thing to death.”

Conservation science is advanced enough now that we can strike a balance between preserving big, old trees for future generations and creating areas where nature can take its course.

A little larger than a pigeon with a triangle-shaped chest and a large fanned tail, they’re called “ruffed” grouse because of the shiny black or brown feathers on their necks that come on prominent display when a male is defending his territory or is showing off to a female. With a puffed-up neck and fully-fanned tail, the male can appear twice his actual size.

Less than 1 percent of the Monongahela National Forest is now made up of young-growth forest, Ordiway says. If that were increased to 20 percent, we would likely see a rebound in grouse populations, along with other species. “You create a quality habitat for grouse, and you create a habitat for lots of migratory songbirds and everything from butterflies to black bears,” she says.

Landowners Do Their Part

Conservation efforts on public lands can only go so far, however, since 80 percent of West Virginia land is privately owned. That’s why the DNR is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the state Division of Forestry, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and others to encourage landowners to create habitat on their properties.

The program is actually focused on creating more habitat for the golden winged warbler, but Catherine Loucks, an avian biologist for the USDA, says the work has implications far beyond the warbler. Grouse live in the same kinds of habitat, as do many songbirds, mammals, and bugs.

Since the program started in 2012, 150 acres have been transformed into breeding habitat. “There’s quite a bit more in the works for this year and next year,” Loucks says.

Any landowner in West Virginia can apply but, because funding is limited, properties closer to existing warbler populations are given higher priority. That region includes much of the eastern part of the state.

Participating landowners receive financial assistance for habitat creation—covering up to 75 percent of the cost—as well as technical assistance. Almost any kind of property, except wetlands and conifer forests, can be transformed into a thriving young forest habitat. Loucks guides landowners through the process. She might recommend a limited timber harvest, or mowing certain areas to create open pasture. Landowners then introduce fast-growing shrubs and trees like blackberry bushes, blueberry bushes, dogwood trees, American chestnut trees, and fruit-bearing trees.

It can take some convincing to get people to cut down trees on their property, Loucks says. A timber harvest might not look pretty at first but, within just a few years, the area is filled with all kinds of plant and animal life that wouldn’t otherwise be there. By that time, there’s not much convincing needed.

For more information, visit your local U.S. Department of Agriculture service center or contact Loucks at 304.364.5103 ext. 104 or catherine.loucks@wv.usda.gov.