What makes a grouse dog?
Ruffed grouse tend to inhabit wooded areas with high stem density which makes it more difficult for ground predators to approach. Generally, they prefer a bare forest floor with good visibility and an over story for protection from aerial predators. Grouse live singly and are therefore responsible for their own survival. Their preferred means of travel is walking. When threatened, evasive options are many and grouse will run, flush, fly into a tree, sit tight or any combination.
What Betsy and I seek in a grouse dog are qualities that allow the dog to find the most birds and the ability to point them in a manner that provides the best shooting opportunities. We choose our grouse dogs based on the habits, and habitat, of the birds.
Ruffed grouse are solitary birds that live in big woods.
Even though the woods are vast, only a small portion holds grouse. We require a dog that will cover a good amount of territory searching for these individual birds while staying in contact with the handler.
Ruffed grouse inhabit some nasty areas.
Not only does a grouse dog have to penetrate the bird’s realm but it also has to get there. This includes traversing rough cover of debris-strewn, moss-covered, logged-over areas, tall grass, thorny berry briars and lots of water—whether in swamps, streams, marshes or ponds. A grouse dog is constantly ducking under, jumping over or otherwise dodging something in its path. We want a tenacious dog that is not deterred by tough terrain.
Ruffed grouse also like bare forest floors.
A grouse leaves little scent on a bare forest floor. That open-ness at bird level also gives grouse a good view of its surroundings. We require a dog with superb scenting ability that can follow a bird’s movements. The dog should have the dual qualities of strong pointing instinct and boldness to engage the bird.
In addition to those qualities that are bird-oriented, Betsy and I want a tractable, intelligent dog with physical ability and style. It should have good hearing with natural ability to orient to its handler. It should effortlessly adapt to different cover. It should move easily and hunt for long periods of time, even under hot, dry conditions. Finally, we want a stylish dog that hunts with zeal.
We know that’s asking a lot of a dog but we’ve seen many dogs do it.
And the only way to find out is to work dogs on grouse. It takes time, knowledge of the bird and boot leather. Some abilities can be ascertained when a dog is young but most will be at least three years of age before its true capabilities are known.
All this experience and observation has taught me a lot about their preferences and habits.
On our home training grounds, I buy enough bobwhites in July to fill four Johnny houses and use them until the snow stops me from training. These quail grow into extremely strong flyers that know their terrain as well as a wild bird. They even become comfortable enough to remain outside the recall pens and are healthy enough to survive on their own during winter conditions.
In August 2012, a covey disappeared from a recall pen and Dan and I couldn’t use that Johnny house all fall. In mid December we heard that a covey of 11 had been flushed not far from the pen. This covey had been on its own for four months! When I checked it out—and by then it had snowed five inches—the covey flushed wild from a hillside covered with tall oak trees. The area was covered with quail tracks, snow had been scratched away and acorn pieces were scattered everywhere. Those birds had discovered a great food supply and had thrived.
Sometimes, though, they just disappear and I don’t know why.
Here are more observations about bobwhite quail.
• Late in October 2011, Dan and I put out a covey in a likely location—a south-facing slope with lots of good cover options—and then spread feed around the area several times each week. In spite of several snow falls and sub-zero temperatures, we saw this covey into early March 2012.
• Dogs often find ruffed grouse in the vicinity of the recall houses. This might be coincidental but it does seem quail and grouse are in close proximity. In fact, I’ve seen evidence that grouse feed on the scratch grain we spread for the put-out coveys.
• Like most adult game birds, the worst predators for bobwhites are hawks and owls. Often when it’s difficult to flush them from the Johnny house, a hawk is the reason. One will swoop in after some birds have been encouraged to leave. Cooper’s hawks are especially deadly. Countless times in Tennessee I saw a Cooper’s leaving a covey location when I approached to spread feed. They even chased quail when flushed from a covey in front of a dog’s point.
• Last year, I hauled two dozen quail from our Tennessee training grounds back to Minnesota, thinking I could use them for some spring training. Even though Dan and I flushed a few, they didn’t recall back to their Johnny house. My guess is that they had started to pair up and preferred to stay out with their chosen mates. One male in particular started showing up around our house in early May. Betsy and I saw him only occasionally but heard his distinctive whistle almost daily. Later in June, our neighbor Jeff spotted a female quail with several chicks just east of our kennel. This brood turned into a small covey that was flushed occasionally in the same vicinity until late fall.