Since colonial times, upland bird hunters have worried themselves sick at least once every decade over the imminent disappearance of the ruffed grouse. Back in 1754 the bird seemed to be just about gone from Pennsylvania. In 1832 the good countryfolk of New Hampshire scratched their pates over the sudden lack of "pa'tridge." The boys in blue returning to New York State after the Civil War found grouse as hard to corner as Bedford Forrest's cavalry. In the 1920s, when grouse "crashed" disastrously in New England, a crusty old market hunter named Fred Bucklin blamed it on the chestnut blight. In peak years Bucklin had killed 350 birds a season, selling them for $1.50 a brace. Now he lamented. "I wish I could put them back in the trees the way they were..."
Well, it looks as if we can.
For most of this century, hunters and wildlife managers alike have recognized a 10-year cycle of ruffed grouse. In Minnesota, for instance, the birds tend to peak in years ending with zero, one or two. They hit their low in years ending in four, five and six. In between, they are either on their way up or back down. Though the data is meager, there seems to be a continental rhythm to the cycles as well. The ruff is our most widely distributed non-migratory game bird, occurring in 38 states and 13 Canadian provinces ranging from Labrador down to California and from the Yukon basin to northern Alabama. Declines seem to begin in the far northwest and northeast of the bird's range and then angle slowly southward toward the middle of the continent. Recoveries follow the same route. Currently, the southern half of New England, along with much of New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, is in the grip of a low that began six or seven years ago. The upper Middle West—heartland of the ruffs range—is just beginning a recovery from a decline that started in 1971-72. Still, the lows keep getting lower, while recoveries never reach as high as the last one.
Theories to explain the cycle probably began in Pilgrim times. They run from sunspots to A-bomb tests, from "those newfangled auty-mobiles" to competition with other game birds, such as the ring-necked pheasant, introduced from abroad. Most of the theories, though, are just so much grouse feathers. No one has devoted as much time and thought and just plain hard, cold work to the subject as Gordon Wright Gullion, 54, an associate professor of wildlife management at the University of Minnesota and leader of the school's Forest Wildlife Relations Project at Cloquet, Minn., just west of Duluth. Gullion also serves as Projects Committee chairman for the Ruffed Grouse Society, a 4,000-member group with headquarters in Coraopolis, Pa. After 19 years of study, two full cycles' worth, Gullion believes he can dampen the severity of one cycle so that it will appear on a graph as a mere ground swell rather than the steep zigzags of the past. If so, it would be the greatest boon to grouse gunners since the invention of powder and the pointing breeds.
The key, according to Gullion, is that lowly tree, the aspen. Using a program of rotational clear-cutting in 1,100 aspen-dominated acres of the Cloquet Forest Center, Gullion has been able to produce population densities of one breeding bird per three acres. During the recent Minnesota "crash." his woods were full of birds: in the fall hunting season he achieved one grouse per acre. Since a density of one grouse to each 10 acres is considered high elsewhere in North America, that amounts to bird hunter's heaven. What's more, in this age of soaring wood prices, the game manager or hunting-club director who employed Gullion's methods could count on a profit of as much as $100 an acre for pulp and hardwood in addition to the sporting benefit.
"The secret is feeding efficiency," says Gullion. "We've timed ruffs during the winter when they're feeding almost exclusively on male aspen flower buds. One grouse can tuck away 100 grams of buds in 15 minutes. That's like a 150-pound man eating 27 pounds of food at one equivalent sitting." Earlier researchers stressed the catholicity of the grouse's feeding tastes. The crops of killed birds were found to contain a lengthy grocery list of goodies: buds of willow and oak, catkins of hazel, ironwood, alder and birch: the fruits of wild rose, dogwood and apple and a wide range of berries; mushrooms: the poisonous leaves of laurel and rhododendron: even insects, salamanders and on one occasion, a small garter snake. But Gullion's research has shown that these foods, especially in the cold depth of winter, are merely hors d'oeuvres and dessert.
"The ruffed grouse is not a catholic feeder by choice," he insists. "It is not an adaptable bird. When aspen is missing from the range, a bird must spend two or three hours to fill up on these other items, rather than a quarter of an hour on aspen. That's much more time out in the open, where predators are hunting. And much more time in the cold. Each time it lifts that wing, it's losing heat. Where aspen is present and snow is an important part of the winter ecology, the ruffed grouse is an aspen-dependent bird."
Not only do mature aspens provide gourmet winter dining for the birds, but aspens of all ages offer something of value to a grouse at every stage of the bird's life. Aspens up to 10 years old grow thick and close—a plant per square foot—and are the preferred habitat for growing birds. Aspens from 10 to 30 years old serve as drumming and breeding cover and also provide good winter protection in years of light snow. And, of course, a stand of mature aspens (the tree can live from 40 to 60 years) is restaurant row.
Aspens are "clones" of an extensive root system that can be as old as 10,000 years. A root system can live almost indefinitely, so long as one tree is associated with it. Left to its own devices, or occasionally cut back, a system will respond with heavy sucker growth and new vigor.
Over the years, Gullion and his associates have experimented with different sized clear-cuts to see which the birds prefer. The answer: nothing smaller than one acre, nor larger than 10. Working with a hypothetical 40-acre tract, Gullion would cut a different acre each year. After five years, bird populations would increase dramatically, and by the end of 40 years one could count on nearly a bird an acre. From that point on, if the rotation were continued, the boom-or-bust nature of the insidious grouse cycle should be broken.