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Spring ruffed grouse drumming counts increased

The Minnesota DNR's spring drumming counts showed a statewide increase in drums-per-stop from 1.3 in 2021, to 1.9 in 2022. The increase was unexpected because grouse are in the dwindling stage of the 10-year population cycle.

A roughed grouse flaps its wings.
Ruffed grouse drumming counts in Minnesota were up statewide from 1.3 drums per stop in 2021, to 1.9 drums per stop this spring (2022). Whether or not that leads to better hunting when the season opens Sept. 17 depends on a variety of factors, most importantly grouse nesting success this summer.
Contributed / Bill Marchel
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CENTRAL MINNESOTA — When Minnesota’s ruffed grouse hunting season opens Sept. 17 hunters may encounter more birds than last fall.

Or will we?

Last week the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released results of the springtime ruffed grouse drumming survey. Each spring, observers drive survey routes and stop at predetermined locations to listen for four minutes for drumming grouse, then record the number of drums per stop.

Ruffed grouse males drum in spring (and other times, too) to attract a mate. Drumming can be heard for up to ½ mile on calm days. The incredible drumming sound is made as the bird strikes the air with its wings vigorously enough to create a brief vacuum, in effect causing a miniature sonic boom. The bird does not pound a log with its wings, nor beat its wings together, as some people assume.

This spring’s drumming counts showed a statewide increase in drums-per-stop from 1.3 in 2021, to 1.9 in 2022. The increase was unexpected because grouse are in the dwindling stage of the 10-year population cycle. History proves ruffed grouse populations rise and fall on a roughly 10-year cycle, and grouse experts are still baffled as to why those highs and lows occur.

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But will we find more grouse in the woods this fall?

My own informal drumming counts showed a decrease in the number of drummers. On a good year I’ve heard as many as five different grouse drumming from my house. This year, only one.

A hunting dog with a grouse in its mouth.
Ruffed grouse are Minnesota’s most popular game bird. Annually, hunters harvest 200,000-500,000 of the woodland birds.
Contributed / Bill Marchel

Anecdotal information from summer ruffed grouse sightings isn’t very promising, at least in the immediate Brainerd area. People with whom I have spoken have seen few or no ruffed grouse broods. My own experience mirrors that of my acquaintances.

Even with an increase in the springtime drumming counts, many factors can influence this fall’s grouse numbers.

Cold, wet weather in early June — like we experienced this spring/summer when most grouse hatch — can dramatically affect chick survival. Young grouse are not fed by the hen and are on their own finding food, which consists primarily of insects, and insect abundance is also affected by cold weather. Wet, hungry grouse chicks are very vulnerable to dying of hypothermia.

And then there is the predator factor. Grouse, young and old, are prey to a host of critters including foxes, bobcats, fishers, mink, wolves, raccoons, hawks and owls, and others.

A grouse in a hole in the snow.
Last winter’s deep and fluffy snow were ideal for grouse to “snow roost.” Soft snow allowed grouse to dive beneath the snow’s surface to roost, thus conserving valuable energy, and may be partially responsible for this spring’s drumming count increase.
Contributed / Bill Marchel

Some people are convinced wild turkeys eat grouse eggs — and even young grouse — and that the introduction of turkeys in this area has reduced the grouse population. I disagree with that. Ruffed grouse numbers have been low, even during 10-year peaks, since the mid-1980s, a full 15 years before wild turkeys were released here.

I also don’t believe habitat, or a lack of it, is a problem. Excellent grouse cover exists in much of Minnesota forestlands, but grouse have never been as abundant as they were 40 or more years ago.

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Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s my friends and I had excellent grouse hunting in central Minnesota, as did other hunters. It was not uncommon for two or three hunters to flush 50 grouse during a day afield. Now, flushing a dozen grouse is considered good.

Optimistically, I hope the increase in spring drumming counts will result in more birds. Come fall, poor reports or not, hunters and dogs will take to the aspen forests in pursuit of what many consider to be the greatest game bird on earth — the ruffed grouse.

Bill Marchel
Bill Marchel

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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