An ode to the elusive and enigmatic ruffed grouse

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest The ruffed grouse is one of the most prized game birds in North America and the hills of Ohio are part of its southernmost habitat range. An elusive and difficult bird to hunt due to its flighty craftiness and habitation in dense undergrowth that reduces hunter visibility and accessibility, the ruffed grouse is a real trophy for hunters in the Buckeye state. But its numbers in Ohio are drastically declining,A brown/gray-brown bird with a fan-shaped black banded tail and barred flanks, the grouse physically resembles a chicken, but the comparisons stop there. This beautiful, wary bird that prefers and needs thick, impenetrable cover — such as clear cutting regrowth — to survive, is a constantly alert master of its domain that is a revered symbol of the American forest.American author and avid bird hunter Robert DeMott, of Athens, has stalked the hills of southeastern Ohio in pursuit of grouse for nearly five decades and has harvested hundreds of the species over his hunting career. Beyond a long list of academic publications and titles, DeMott has written prolifically about bird hunting and bird dogs over the years. He edited and contributed to the book, “Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs,” and frequently writes for upland hunting magazines such as “Gray’s Sporting Journal,” “Upland Almanac,” and “The Contemporary Wingshooter.” His writings demonstrate the author to possess a reflective, intellectual pursuit of all things wild and winged and a keen, perceptive attention to his environment, his dogs, and his quarry.In a recent discussion, DeMott shared his views on the pursuit of Ohio’s ruffed grouse and the bird’s status in the state. He said that he enjoys hunting this bird because of the challenge and difficulty that they present to even the best wingshooters.Preferring to hunt grouse accompanied by his beloved English Setters, DeMott said, “The grouse is not considered the number one game bird for nothing. Killing a grouse requires patience and determination and stamina. The success rate on grouse is extremely low. They are wily and always have some trick up their sleeves to fool the hunter or the dog. The flush is always explosive; it really gets your blood going.”This sentiment is echoed in DeMott’s article, “Early Birds,” when he writes about his appreciation of “the physical immediacy of the upland moment, with its intense points, flushes, shots.”Another aspect of grouse hunting which appeals to DeMott is the physically demanding nature of the chase.“Part of the challenge and value of the hunt is that it is very strenuous, especially down here in southern Ohio, where you will walk miles in pretty rugged terrain and on steep side hills that can twist your ankles and make for a hard hike. There were times that I’d get to a dog on point and be almost too tired to lift the gun! Because we live in such a hilly part of the state, it is better if the bird dog hunts close; if it doesn’t, you have to do a lot of trekking to get to a dog on point,” he said. “Back in the day when the grouse numbers were high, it was worth it because there was a promise of action, and with my best dogs for a couple of years, I never had a grouse flush wild. We would get into the woods at 10 and quit by three or four, and that was a pretty full day. The dogs would get a little tired and lose their edge after that.”As anyone who has hunted alongside trusted canine hunting companions for years can attest, the truest joy of upland game hunting comes from observing one’s dog in the field, doing what is in its instinctive nature and breeding to do. DeMott concurs.In “These Among Many: A Gallery of Good Fortune,” DeMott writes that “A day afield with bird dogs, even when they are acting badly and not themselves and even when birds are scarce, is still preferable to most other kinds of recreation I can name.”When interviewed, DeMott expanded on this.“The older you get, the less interested you are in bagging birds. I just enjoy watching the dogs work cover, watching them go through their moves,” he said. “They are tremendous athletes. It’s all about watching and appreciating the dog’s athletic ability, its intelligence, and its gracefulness. That is more important to me than killing birds, especially given the fact that the numbers of grouse in Ohio are so low.”Though there are pockets of grouse still to be chased in Ohio, their numbers are dwindling, which makes for some tough hunting with little to show for it these days.“I started hunting southeastern Ohio for grouse the first year I moved to Athens in 1969. I kept at it through the ‘90s. The 1970s and 1980s was the heyday for us. The height of the grouse population was in 1983 or 1984, and then it gradually subsided after that. In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, it was possible to find birds, but probably in the last eight or nine years, hunting for grouse has become quite fruitless around Athens, Meigs, Vinton, and Morgan counties where I hunt. People still harvest a few over the year, but it is no longer regular,” DeMott said.As DeMott notes in an essay about some of his favorite bird dogs entitled “Four Queens,” “According to the 2009 Ohio DNR survey, the range-wide flush rate for ruffed grouse in Ohio is 0.38 per hour, which is to say that something close to three hours of hunting are needed to flush the equivalent of one whole grouse. To put it another way, thirty-three hours of hunting are required for each bird bagged.”“Southeastern Ohio never had the grouse numbers as the northern tier states, but it was ample,” DeMott said. “ I always prided myself on that fact that I didn’t have to go up to Wisconsin or Michigan to grouse hunt like a lot of guys did, because I could find grouse around home. However, since 2009, I have had to take trips north to really get into birds. It is disappointing that with all of the open territory we have down here, there is not as much habitat for grouse as there once was.”DeMott said that without the fall woodcock season, when good numbers of resident and migrating timber doodles can still be found, there would be little very little game bird life in his neck of the woods for his dogs to work.“The woodcock have really taken up the slack for the dogs. Looking back through my hunting diaries, there are so many entries where I was recording flushes and harvests of both grouse and woodcock during woodcock season. Now, I am only encountering woodcock. You don’t see them mixed together as we once did, which always made for a really fine upland trip,” he said.There is far less clear cutting being done in the Appalachian foothills around Athens and that means a lot more mature forests, which is a habitat in which grouse do not thrive.Anecdotally, DeMott also thinks that the increase in wild turkeys throughout the state may contribute to the decline. Turkeys may scratch up grouse nests and maybe eat some of the same foods that grouse feed upon. Certainly, the rebound of turkeys seems to coincide with the diminishment of grouse numbers. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds” points out that “many areas forests are maturing, eliminating the undergrowth this species needs; where this is happening, reintroduced Wild Turkeys are increasing and grouse are decreasing.”About the future of grouse hunting in Ohio, DeMott is not optimistic. Grouse numbers are down due to habitat loss and not hunting pressure. The grouse season has been shortened by one month in the state due to the population decline and the birds continue to be few and far between.“The days are gone when we could follow multiple grouse tracks through newly fallen snow in early December or hunt some mild days in February and get into some birds. The decline in birds sure has been precipitous, and there doesn’t seem to be any rebounding,” DeMott said.Nonetheless, he holds out hope that despite the loss of habitat and disappearance of large numbers of ruffed grouse in the state, there will remain some vestiges of this regal and charming bird into future, as it adds diversity, beauty, and wonder to southern Ohio’s natural ecosystems.As DeMott tells his readership in one memoir, “Truth to tell, I can live without bringing another Buckeye state grouse to hand, but not without believing there is another bird for the dogs to find and point.”last_img

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