Drumming Counts for a Whopper of a Season
Wow. Just. Wow. Fifty-seven percent increase in this year’s survey of ruffed grouse populations. What’s behind it, and what can we expect in the woods this fall?
A Count Like No Other
For decades now, volunteers have been driving routes to record ruffed grouse populations. They stop the car at intervals, and listen for a ruffed grouse drumming. Over time, a graphic picture of populations emerged, showing peaks about every 10 years. The last peak was around 2009.
What Can We Expect?
More birds this fall is a reasonable assumption. How many? A lot depends on the weather, how well this year’s chicks survived the spring rains. The count itself, is only a rough estimate. There are lots of variables in the accuracy, such as conditions for low-frequency sound travel on the days of the count depending on wind and humidity. Local conditions can vary on the drumming routes also, as timber management near a route can effect populations. Then there is the human element. One volunteer I talked to, brought his wife along during his count. As he was to leave a stop recording no drums, his wife said wait a minute, I hear one. The rest of the route went like that, his hearing was not as good at low frequencies as his wife’s.
My personal take, is that 57% is too high an increase to be accurate. We shouldn’t hit the peak for another two years based on previous experience. I’ve hunted through enough peaks and valleys to lend a little caution to all the optimism. Then there is a predictable result of the press release. There will be lots more hunters in the woods due to the hype. More hunting pressure pushes birds off the trails and makes for harder hunting.
And Now, a Word from the DNR
July 10, 2017
Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were up 57 percent statewide this year compared to last year, according to a survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“The grouse population is nearing its 10-year peak,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “Grouse populations tend to rise and fall on a decade-long cycle and counts this year are typical of what we expect as the population nears the peak.”
Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.
Drumming counts are an indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population. The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer. For the past 68 years, DNR biologists have monitored ruffed grouse populations. This year, DNR staff and cooperators from 15 organizations surveyed 122 routes across the state.
The 2017 survey results for ruffed grouse were 2.1 drums per stop statewide. The averages during 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were 0.9 and 1.1 and 1.1 and 1.3, respectively. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low grouse abundance to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.
Results this year follow an increase from 2015 to 2016. In the northeast survey region, which is the core of Minnesota’s grouse range, counts were 2.5 drums per stop; in the northwest there were 1.6 drums per stop; in the central hardwoods, 0.9 drums per stop; and in the southeast, 0.8 drums per stop. Statewide, drums per stop were as high as during the last peak in drumming in 2009, but have not yet reached previous peak levels in all regions.
For grouse hunters, the large increase in drumming counts this year is sure to be a signal of good times ahead during the fall season, said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator.
“We’re excited about the way things are looking,” he said. “We have more good grouse habitat than anywhere in the lower 48 states.”
Grouse hunters have a wealth of public land from which to choose. There are 49 ruffed grouse management areas across northern and central Minnesota that provide destinations for hunters in areas with good potential for producing grouse. There are 528 wildlife management areas in the ruffed grouse range that cover nearly 1 million acres and 600 miles of hunter walking trails. State forests, two national forests and county forest lands also offer many additional acres of public land for hunting.
“Grouse hunting need not be complicated and it’s another way to experience the outdoors in the fall,” Dick said. “Combine all that with our grouse numbers nearing peak and this is shaping up to be a great year to try grouse hunting for those who haven’t.”
Sharp-tailed grouse counts similar to last year
To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on traditional mating areas, which are called leks or dancing grounds.
“The average number of sharp-tailed grouse was similar this year compared to 2016,” Roy said.
The data on sharp-tailed grouse take some interpretation, because survey results can be influenced by how many leks are counted or changes in how many birds are at each lek year to year.
Comparisons of the same leks counted in both years indicate that counts per lek were similar to last year in both survey regions and statewide. This year’s statewide average of 9.7 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980. The 2009 average of 13.6 was as high as during any year since 1980. During the last 25 years, the sharp-tailed grouse index has been as low as seven birds counted per dancing ground.
The DNR’s 2017 grouse survey report and grouse hunting information can be found at mndnr.gov/hunting/grouse.
By Joel Schnell
Posted August 1, 2017.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
He can be reached at info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com