Ruffed grouse hunters appear to be spotting more birds in the woods this fall than they did a year ago, according to preliminary reports.
The sightings — if they hold up throughout the season — are important, because last year the fast-flushing birds generally were no-shows, even though spring drumming counts indicated ruffed grouse were at or near the top of their 10-year population cycle.
Historically, fall grouse-harvest numbers have tracked population estimates forecast by spring drumming counts. But last year’s lopsided disparity between the two indicators worried Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife officials and prompted a joint study this fall with Wisconsin and Michigan intended to determine the prevalence, if any, of West Nile virus (WNV) in ruffed grouse.
WNV is a known infector of birds such as jays and crows, and is believed to have adversely affected ruffed grouse populations in Pennsylvania.
“My take on hunting this fall, after only the first three weeks, is that it’s better than last year,’’ said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator and acting forest habitat team leader in Grand Rapids. “In some respects, that’s not saying much because last year was so poor. But we’ve had some decent reports this fall.’’
Earlier this week, Dick made an hourlong evening hunt with his dog and recorded 29 woodcock flushes and three grouse flushes — great for the former, pretty good for the latter.
Another uplander who has been in the woods this fall about the same amount of time as early last season has had 28 grouse flushes this fall, compared to nine a year ago.
As part of the WNV study, the DNR has distributed about 500 kits to Minnesota hunters with instructions to return grouse hearts, a few feathers and blood on filter strips for testing. “We’re hoping to get 400 of the samples returned,’’ Dick said.
Next week’s Ruffed Grouse Society National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt headquartered in Grand Rapids will give wildlife managers and researchers a detailed look at this fall’s grouse population. About 100 hunters from around the nation will participate, and birds that are killed will be aged, sexed and categorized by color phase.
Last year’s hunt yielded 30 percent fewer grouse than the 2016 outing, and was 50 percent below the average harvest of the hunt in its first 36 years.