Thursday, February 10, 2022

Keeping a healthy habitat for grouse

ruffed grouse

By Suzanne Treyger

Bruce and Gail Cushing knew they had a diverse property before they started connecting with forestry professionals.

Located in Clemons, (Washington County), the Cushings’ 117 acres has a variety of mature tree species – maples, beech, birches, eastern hemlock, oaks, and some large shagbark hickory. Interspersed throughout the mature forest are openings of different sizes that are full of young, regenerating forest.

Having a diversity of forest age classes present on their land greatly enhances the habitat quality for many forest birds, like the Wood Thrush, Golden-winged Warbler, and Ruffed Grouse — the latter’s populations have declined by about 75% since the 1960s in New York State, according to the Breeding Bird Survey data. Population declines are largely due to the loss of quality habitat.

Luckily, the Cushings’ forest has ideal habitat conditions to support Ruffed Grouse. Patches of dense, young forest surrounded by mature forest provides grouse with ample nesting habitat. The diverse tree and shrub species provide food resources, and numerous hemlock trees offer important thermal cover during harsh winters.

The Cushings work with their professional forester, Steve Handfield, to manage their forest to improve forest health, timber quality, wildlife habitat, and roads and trails that were once skid trails. They have also consulted with Audubon New York staff and other natural resource professionals.

ruffed grouse habitat

Downed log for grouse habitat. Photo: Bruce Cushing

Bruce enjoys doing the work himself and has been improving forest health by removing invasive Japanese honeysuckle and American beech trees that are heavily diseased and dying from Beech Bark Disease. This is part of Timber Stand Improvement (TSI), which includes activities that improve the health and vigor of the forest with the long-term management goal of a timber harvest.

Bruce has also left trees he has cut to lay on the ground, a wildlife habitat tip he received from Audubon New York staff. “Many forest breeding birds need complex structure on the forest floor so they can nest and forage safely. Ruffed Grouse will also use downed logs for drumming,” said Suzanne Treyger, forest program manager for Audubon New York.

The enhanced forest habitat created from felled trees resulted in Bruce and Steve finding an active Ruffed Grouse nest on the ground in early spring. It was the first time either had found a Ruffed Grouse nest, as they are very well camouflaged and hidden. A few weeks after discovering the nest, Bruce saw an adult grouse and 5-6 chicks in another area of his property.

Thanks to their participation in Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers (WWW), a multi-state partnership with Audubon, VT Woodlands Association, and New York Forest Owners Association, among others, the Cushings also receive resources and tools to enhance forest habitat and health. “The biggest adjustment for me, which I learned through WWW, is leaving behind snags and downed material,” said Bruce. “All that used to be firewood. Last year a big oak blew over in a storm. Since learning WWW practice, instead of burning it all as firewood, where it would be forever gone up in smoke, I’ll get to watch it rot and bring life back to my forest for thirty plus years. The snags I can watch for years before they come to the ground. I can put aluminum tags on blow downs etc. and track how long a log has been down and become a new life breeder.

“Last year we came upon a small oven bird and nest. So tiny and on the ground in among little sticks and twigs. Small debris is as important as big debris. Leaving things behind just gives me so much more to look at, not just vertical growth.”

Landowners can learn more via

As Forest Program Manager for Audubon’s New York and Connecticut office, Suzanne promotes sustainable forestry practices on private and public land by providing outreach and technical assistance to landowners and land managers. A native of central New York, she has a BS in Wildlife Management from the University of New Hampshire, and a MS from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Forest and Natural Resources Management, where her research focused on invasive species management issues on private lands in the Adirondack State Park.

Photo at top: Ruffed Grouse by Larry Swanson/Audubon Photography Awards

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10 Responses

  1. David Pietkiewicz says:

    Great article. I hope more landowners take up this practice!

  2. Boreas says:

    Great article!! Nature loves “natural” entropy – not removal of biomass. My postage-stamp woodlot looks like a disaster. Widow-makers, rotting logs, standing dead white pines, and a small brook – just wide enough that I can’t jump across.

    But living close to a hamlet, there are always cats around. I love cats, but they shouldn’t leave your property. I have plenty of other habitation-friendly predators as well, but there certainly has been quite a decline in ground and under-story nesters over the last 20 years – obviously multi-factorial. Night-jars, warblers, thrush, woodcock, and grouse all have declined significantly within earshot. The tiny field beside my property has been allowed to grow by the owners, so whip-poor-will and woodcock activity have left that tiny gem despite my pleas to have it bush hogged every so-often. Whippers have all but left the vicinity in general. Used to have 3-4 breeding pairs within earshot – rarely heard now.

    It is a conundrum. For those of us that wish to allow Nature to restore herself, it is essentially anathema to keep human-developed grasslands and transition lands as we had in our youth, and the species these lands benefited. This is why I like the Forest Preserve idea. I believe those FP lands should have virtually no “management” and be left to re-wild and mature with Nature’s timeline. But I also see the benefit of private lands and state forests being managed for wildlife diversity, hunting, fishing, and recreation.

    Hopefully, we can at least stop contributing to species diversity decline across the globe by encouraging wildlife corridors and such, while curtailing our widespread habitat destruction, including ocean habitat. We need to work together – not fight each other. More often than not, when it comes down to it, we ultimately want the same things.

    • JB says:

      Boreas, predictably, my concern in the matter is that the “management” strategies employed during the past couple of centuries have turned North America into the most ecologically disrupted continent on the planet. Our native flora seem particularly poorly suited to competition from adventive Eurasian plants and predation by invasive pests. In fact, no continent can lay claim to being anywhere near as affected by alien species as ours–20% of our ~24,000 plant species are non-native, as are the majority of the most widespread ones. The apparent fragility of our ecosystems combined with ubiquitous habitat disturbance has left us teetering on the edge of disaster.

      Declines in ruffed grouse populations in New York state are likely a positive sign that our forest ecosystems are returning to some degree of normalcy. Timber Stand Improvement, from what I can gather, is very much backed by preservation of an unsustainable status quo–by pulling on the reins a bit–and not by ecology. If anything, TSI is at odds with ecology. For example, this article rightfully touts the myriad benefits of leaving deadwood in the forest. But we can’t forget that TSI is ultimately about producing timber for extraction–extraction that disrupts ecosystem relations (including those with native invertebrates), soil cycles and even the genetic integrity of tree geotypes.

      That all being said, I would like to think that Audubon has pure intentions in its strong allyship with foresters and the timber management lobby. I would like to think that there is no cronyism and no selling out…That, at the very worst, they are just trying to protect ecosystems with a naive selectivity, and, at best, they are being pragmatic and attacking the issue one bite at a time. But the fact remains that die-hard birders in New York will probably have fewer opportunities to check boxes on their bucket lists should our ecosystems largely return to their co-evolved state.

      • JT says:

        I had been thinking along the same lines as you mention here, “Declines in ruffed grouse populations in New York state are likely a positive sign that our forest ecosystems are returning to some degree of normalcy”. When i hear that the Ruffed Grouse populations have declined 75% since the 60’s, they are using the 1960’s as a reference point as being the number of Grouse we should have. At this point in time, agricultural areas with lower productivity were abandoned an reverting back to early successional stage forests that were perfect for grouse. It would be interesting to see what the Grouse population would have been pre-colonial times, although this is impossible to know. The only early successional forest would have been made from Native Americans, beavers and other natural causes. I am not to concerned with Ruffed Grouse population declines. I have actually flushed Grouse in the forest preserve (High Peaks, Hurricane and Giant Mountain wilderness areas).
        So these areas can support Grouse populations, just not at high enough numbers to make it worth going out and hunting them.
        Almost forgot to mention, I do have some concern if the decline were due to West Nile Virus, but have not heard that this is a major cause of mortality.

        • JB says:

          JT, very good points. It is often said that the danger that comes along with the loss of biodiversity is that the cultural understanding of biodiversity is also lost: we start to think that the resultant ecosystems are “normal”, and we become naively selective in choosing our reference points. But I think that the greater danger–one which our society is very guilty of–is that we choose to emblemize certain species above all others. We trivialize biodiversity and then further disrupt ecosystems ad infinitum. Our management causes problems that beget more management.

          The reality is that the ecological requirements of even prominently featured species like Ruffed Grouse are little understood, probably, in part, precisely because we have thrown ecological thinking by the wayside. But all indications are that, as a species, they would do just fine without our help. Maybe we’re helping a little too much, even? The only type of “bird” that our help is guaranteed to facilitate in the end are Black Swans. 🙂

  3. nathan says:

    Ruffled grouse have completely disappeared in the forests around me, i really noticed a rapid decline in the 80’s and by mid 90’s all were gone in the roughly 2 sq. miles behind my home. it is mostly mixed forest, some fields and lightly logged here and there with lots of logs and Brush.I also noticed huge decline in all animals around same time. woodchucks, raccoons, rabbits, pheasant, partridge, fox, bobcat, all ground animals are basically gone. The one big change was Coyotes showing up, they were just there and within a few years non stop howling of packs. I blame them massively for the decline of animals. i have watched 4-5 coyotes sit for hour and one at a time dig a woodchuck hole taking turns and others watching exit holes until they flush and kill woodchuck. front field used to have 15-20 wood chucks, now there’s 1 left maybe. all the ground nesting birds have disappeared. Coyotes are a horrendous issue and should be year round open season and efforts to reduce population as much as possible. there used to be many foxes years ago and there was a ton of wildlife. but coyotes wiped out everything including foxes and i have seem coyotes actively attack fox litters and foxes 2 times over last 30 years. we have no foxes any more. now during winter i wander the forests and see no tracks of animals other than deer maybe a turkey.
    I have actively made brush piles scattered around hoping maybe rabbits and other animals would have more shelter and safety from coyotes, various food plots, fruit and nut trees. But i cannot seem to change the tide of decline. now over last 5 years a massive decline in song birds, my winter bird feeders went from 100’s of birds at it at times to a busy time maybe a dozen birds. most species of birds i do not see at all anymore. this is a rural area that has become a VERY SILENT SPRING….guided logging is not enough, we need real change and research into fixing environment. i do not even see but even a few species of butterfly anymore when there was 30 plus common ones.
    I walk in the forests and it has become devoid of sound from animals. I fear that there is some serious pollution underlying everything, that we are seeing the smallest die off first, disappear, that next will be deer, then humans.
    Small animals have among the highest metabolic rate and are the most susceptible to toxic, mutagen and death. birds have high rate, rodents, etc. I don’t even see voles, moles, mice when i brush hog or hay, when i used to see thousands in a days work.
    When i was a kid the forest was a orchestra of birds singing, animals making noises, chipmunks chirping, the “eep’s” of weasels hunting, owls, etc. It was never quiet. i would say 99% of the animals are gone compared to the 1970’s.
    It has become very lonely and quiet in the forests.

    • Boreas says:


      Yes, the woods are changing, but natural predator/prey populations move in cycles, not straight lines. You are noticing some big prey declines in your area, but predator declines MUST follow. Then the prey rebound – they breed fast. But as our forests change, the prey species change as well.

      One thing about predators – without prey they either starve or move on. They have their own set of population pressures. In my area, I have virtually all of the mammals you mention as being lost near you. I also have very FEW coyotes that pass through, but they rarely stay. Why is that? I don’t know. I have a game camera that monitors the brook and deer trail behind my house and it may pick up a coyote once/month. About 15 years ago I had a family of coyotes frolicking in my back yard. Haven’t seen that since! TONS of deer that don’t seem to be enticing the coyotes to stay at all (not their preferred prey) but they likely take a fawn or two in spring if they get the chance. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to want to den here, despite available food.

      Good numbers of grey>red fox, squirrels, an occasional chuck (never many around here), increasing numbers of rabbits and turkey, and an occasional fisher that makes his rounds. Just a few grouse, but they were never plentiful. Turkey possibly out-competing with them for mast and winter food.

      One must wonder about snow cover as well. Grouse like to bury themselves in deep snow to avoid predators and stay warm. This year is the first in probably 10 years where we have had good snow cover in my area. Heavy snow should also put pressure on burgeoning turkey numbers. A couple weeks ago I saw a flock of nearly 100 turkeys in a corn field near Essex. That can’t be good for grouse when the corn is gone or covered. Loss of snow can give predators a temporary edge, but again, when their prey is gone, so are they soon after.

      • nathan says:

        not even close, the hawks, falcons, bobcats have disappeared and there are few coyotes, everything has declined drastically. to point of non-existent for over 5 years and still declining animals. now closer to zero animals.
        Silent Spring was eye opener about big chemical, and it still is all about profits, and nothing about the massive destruction of our world. i very rarely use any pesticides, herbicides, insectides, fungicides. I know they basically only delute into enviroment and slowly build. i think we are more in need of homosapienicides and reduce 4-5 billion critters. or much more verilant covid strain.

        • Boreas says:

          Well I can’t comment on what you see or don’t see, but consider the fact that DEC continues to allow hunting/trapping/fishing on many of the species you feel are disappearing. This is usually based on ongoing population studies that they say supports harvesting of these animals. I can’t say what is going on in your area, but it doesn’t jibe with what I see in my area except what I noted below where I DO agree with you.

    • Boreas says:

      I forgot to comment on your invertebrate and small birds losses. This seems to be universal, and has little to do with OUR gradually changing forests here. Scientists of many disciplines are studying this die-off and typically point at habitat loss with migrating birds, insect die-off that is at least related to pesticide use (which also effects the same birds) and possible atmospheric and water pollution. But the insect losses are the most disturbing, because they prop up so much of the food web.

      Virtually all songbirds rely on insects, but they tend to specialize. When entire Families of insects are in decline, so goes the vertebrates that feed on them. Insecticides, GMO, fertilizers, herbicides, – anything that ends in -CIDE is bad for something, and usually MANY things. They are rarely very specific or targeted. They can increase production of OUR food, but at the cost of many other species. Only getting Big Chemical, Big Plastic, and Big Oil out of the pockets of our government officials will begin to turn back the tide. Until then, try to enjoy any nature you can.

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