Game Commission Helps PA State Bird

By Kent Jackson, Staff Writer, Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice

Ruffed grouse don’t grow old, but their habitat does.

The birds, which have a life expectancy of two or three years, need young forests to thrive.

Ruffed grouse

Female ruffed grouse on nest. Pennsylvania Game Commission habitat managers are creating the young forest that grouse need throughout the state./C. Fergus

As forests age, land managers like Benjamin Jones of the Pennsylvania Game Commission keep cutting and burning woodlands to recreate places for grouse.

“Young forests are only good for 15 to 20 years. They’re growing up, so I figure ‘Where am I going next to make sure you have a continuous supply?’” said Jones, the habitat and planning chief for the commission in Harrisburg. “It really takes a lot of creativity. To me, that’s the fun part.”

Grouse need more habitat because they are becoming less common in Pennsylvania, where they are the official state bird.

In its current management plan for grouse, the commission said breeding males decreased by 29,000 between 1980 and 2007. Sightings are down on surveys of hunters, on Christmas bird counts and on the last two Breeding Bird Atlases compiled in Pennsylvania.

To counter the trend, the commission and partners such as the Ruffed Grouse Society have started a de-foresting effort.

The commission opens up 7,000 acres or more of young forest yearly, Jones said. Lumber companies do much of that work. Timber harvests bring in revenue, helping finance other habitats that foresters create by setting fires and planting food or cover crops.
Jones and other foresters choose where loggers will remove trees, leaving patterns of open spaces amid the forest for grouse. “The key term is intersperse. They do need that mix,” he said.

Pennsylvania grouse habitat

Grouse cover in Pennsylvania. Timber harvests and controlled burning create habitat that ruffed grouse, American woodcock, songbirds and many other kinds of wildlife need./C. Fergus

Grouse require assorted types of cover and foods in different stages of their life. They seek cover on the ground to hide from foxes, fishers and other predators but also overhead cover so hawks won’t spot them.

“You want thick, nasty stuff. If you look at a piece of woods that you would rather walk a mile around than go through it, that’s good grouse cover,” biologist Lisa Williams, grouse program specialist for the commission, said.

Grouse survive winter by finding food close to cover. Williams said that’s like having “the restaurant and the living room side by side,” a situation that frequently results after workers thin the forest with saws or fire.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, the game commission clears about 2,000 acres a year with fire, Michael Beahm, the commission’s land manager for the region, said. During a fire last spring on State Game Land 141 on the Broad Mountain in Carbon County, fire tenders noticed a grouse nest. Beahm kept tabs on the nest after the fire. Eleven of the 12 eggs hatched. While fire temporarily disturbed the hen on that nest, fire creates attractive areas for wildlife besides grouse.

Deer, bear, turkey and snowshoe hare find food in young forests, and so do non-game species such as whip-poor-will and the threatened golden-winged warbler and a migrating gamebird, the woodcock.

The Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and its sister group, the American Woodcock Society, give grants to the commission for habitat projects, Beahm said. Members of the RGS chapter in northeastern Pennsylvania raise money and lend their labor on projects that help grouse and woodcock.

Recently, RGS donated $6,000 to build a road on State Game Land 91 near Meadow Run Lake, and a timber company will use the road while clearing a section of forest for grouse.

Frequently the society’s volunteers work in stands of aspen, which grouse prize.
Aspens sprout seedlings in bundles, offering cover to grouse. Grouse eat aspen buds in winter and the fuzzy reproductive parts of the tree called catkins that droop from the branches in early spring.

Pennsylvania doesn’t have as many aspens as states to the west, which is primarily why grouse are more common in the Great Lakes than in Pennsylvania. When land managers find aspen groves in Pennsylvania, however, they nourish them.

"If you find old aspen and cut them down, they regenerate from the roots. The next year there’s a lot of small saplings. A cut area in eight years or so would be good habitat for grouse or woodcock," George Nichols, RGS chapter president, said.