June 26 • 10:26 PM

More grouse!

Working together for the benefit of wildlife

July 01, 2007
Twenty-seven acres is enough land to make a difference for pheasants and bobwhite quail, grouse and woodcock, especially if you have neighbors who will work with you toward common goals. I'm lucky that I do. One of my neighbors is a deer hunter who sees the value in wildlife management. The other, retired and on a fixed income, is learning to manage his part of our woods as a cash crop, and wildlife are reaping the benefits.

We often work together for the benefit of game and non-game wildlife. As a result, we have diversity on our adjoining properties. One species is ruffed grouse. We don't have many, and we cherish each one. I'm certain there would be no grouse at all were we not trying to improve their habitat.

The best scenario occurs when a forest with aspen is burned or clearcut every 40 to 50 years in small, dispersed patches. Aspen trees 15 years and older provide the most important year-round food sources in the form of green leaves, flower buds and catkins. During winter the flower buds of aspen become the staple grouse food, but the birds also eat winter catkins of hazel, along with willow and birch.

Aspens younger than 12 or 15 years provide the thick, vertical stem density that helps protect nesting grouse and hens with broods from aerial and land predators. The key to more grouse is to create varying ages of aspen, when possible, and a variety of hardwoods and brushy covers when aspen is not available. A grouse can be sustained in 10 to 20 acres if the habitat is ideal.

There are several ways to maximize timber harvest while managing aspen for grouse. One method for a 40-acre parcel allows for logging four 2 1/2 acre blocks every 10 to 15 years. A second method is to cut one-quarter of the stands in 2 1/2- to 10-acre blocks, then cut an additional quarter every 10 years.

If the mature aspens are 50 to 60 years old, cut them in 10- to 20-acre blocks, at least 5 years apart. Be sure to hold back some mature male aspen from the last harvest to reduce the length of time the property will be without a winter food supply. Poor-condition stands older than 60 years should be simply clearcut. However, reserve an island or strip of male trees for the same reason.

If you don't have pure aspens on your property, a mixture of oaks, aspen and conifers can be beneficial to grouse. Providing a dense understory and overhead cover, these habitats are most productive when at 10 to 15 feet in height. However, it's important to avoid a domination of one species within a woodlot mixture—especially hardwoods and conifers—because this may discourage grouse from moving onto your land.

Species composition and density also determine when grouse will use the habitat and how long they'll stay. Shrubs taller than five feet can provide year-round food and cover. Recommended species include hazelnut, dogwood, witch hazel, serviceberry and nannyberry. The key is to maintain a dense, young forest.

Oaks can be maintained by cutting 30 to 80 percent of all trees except saplings. Oak cuts should be five to 20 acres in size. Larger cuts should be shaped irregularly, and spacing between cuts of the same age should be at least 600 feet.

Grouse will inhabit lowland hardwoods such as red maple, cottonwood, white ash, swamp white oak, pin oak, sycamore and black gum if there is enough understory growth. Opening the canopy by selective cutting will allow sunlight to the ground and stimulate ground vegetation necessary for cover. Over a 30-year period, selectively harvesting one-third of such cover in strips every 10 years will provide the mixed food and cover needs that attract and hold grouse.

If there are no aspen, oak or lowland hardwoods on your wooded property, grouse may still be attracted to woody plants such as apples, crabapples, hawthorn, wild plums, dogwoods, greenbriar, raspberry, blackberry, sumac, grape, willow and ironwood. Make small clearcuts no larger than 2 ½ acres in size in the interior of such woods, taking care to spare the above species. The result will be an explosion of dense thickets of young trees and shrubs, which will attract grouse.

Whenever you make a clearcut for grouse, be sure to leave one log per acre as a potential drumming site. The log must be at least 10 inches in diameter. The best ones are cut at least three feet from the ground; simply lop the tree so that it remains connected to the stump. Eventually young trees will grow over the log, and a drumming site will develop.

Plant fruit-producing shrubs (crabapples, hawthorns, dogwoods, sumac, etc.) on woodland edges and openings. Encourage these and other shrubs by cutting away competing growth, thinning and pruning if necessary. Protect the smaller shrubs with mouse guards (1/4-inch mesh wire 12 inches high) and deer and rabbit guards (1-inch mesh wire three to four feet high). Mow open areas and trails and plant with mixtures of clover or other legumes and grass.

It's not rocket science, but some work is involved. Hearing a male drummer in spring on your own property makes it all worthwhile.n

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