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Upland Game Birds

Upland Game Birds

Each year approximately 50,000 pheasants are stocked on 23 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), the Delaware Water Gap NRA and Ft. Dix, and 5,200 quail are released on two WMAs. Fish and Wildlife Lands Management staff manage the stocked fields and plant food plots each spring in preparation.

The Statewide season for Northern Bobwhite Quail (wild) and Ruffed Grouse are currently closed.

Ruffed Grouse

Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool (G-PAST)

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is a medium-sized game bird with dappled, grayish or reddish barred and spotted coloration – it is hard to see in its native habitat. It is the most widely distributed member of the Pheasant Family native to the North American continent, and is found in every Canadian province and at least 33 US states. It has a small crest and a tail which the male fans out in display to attract females. The males also produce a drumming sound, typically while perched on a log, as well.

Ruffed grouse range has been shrinking over recent decades due primarily to naturally occurring forest maturation. Human activities, such as development and changing land-use patterns, have also reduced suitable habitat. Ruffed grouse need young forest habitats (i.e., forests less than 20 years of age) to thrive and can be abundant when such habitat exists. In New Jersey, grouse were generally found statewide but were more prevalent in the hardwood forests of our northern counties than in the southern pinelands.

Forested lands in the New Jersey encompass 2 million acres (40%) and are about equally distributed among private (47%) and public (53%) landowners. Unfortunately for some wildlife species that rely on young forest habitat, such as American woodcock, golden-winged warbler, and ruffed grouse, only about 100,000 acres (5%) of forest stands fall in the young forest age class statewide, while 69% of stands are at least 60 years of age.

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is often found in conjunction with aspen-birch-conifer forests in the northern portion of its range, but also in the mixed oak-hickory-beech-cherry hardwood forests of the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States.

Young age forest stands are important for both cover and food, and grouse populations are highest in areas where logging, burning, and other disturbance create openings in older forest stands. Other species, including American woodcock and golden-winged warbler, have similar habitat requirements for their survival. Unfortunately, Young Forest habitats are in short supply and are often not in close proximity relative to each other – in fact 5% of New Jersey’s two million acres of forests are less than 20 years of age. Targeted, scientific forest management practices are critical to recover grouse populations in New Jersey.

Other threats to ruffed grouse populations include predation, weather, and disease. Adult and juvenile grouse are prey for a variety of other avian species (Cooper’s hawk, great-horned owl, and red-tailed hawk) and some mammalian species (bobcat, red fox). Abundant nest predators (raccoon, skunk, snakes) can reduce nest success. In addition to predation, chick survival can be negatively affected by cold and rainy spring weather conditions. Recent research studies in neighboring Pennsylvania seem to indicate that some ruffed grouse populations are also susceptible to West Nile Virus, and a multi-state (including NJ) study to determine prevalence of WNV in ruffed grouse was initiated in 2018.

Adult grouse weigh about 1.5 pounds and have a body length of about 15 to 19 inches with a wingspread of from 22 to 25 inches (males are slightly larger than females). The typical plumage is rich brown sprinkled with white and black above, and white with horizontal dark brown bars on the breast and undersides. The tail is mostly brown, and is finely barred with black and has a wide, black band near the outer edge. The ruff, from which the bird gets its name, is a ring of iridescent black feathers that almost completely encircle the male’s neck. Two color phases (types) can occur: gray, and the more common typical red-brown. An adult grouse can fly at about 20 mph, although its thunderous burst makes it appear even faster.

In early spring the male grouse will seek a log on which to begin the mating ritual known as drumming to attract a mate. This drumming is a sound made by the male grouse beating his wings against the air to create a sound which is similar to someone starting a small gasoline engine. Courtship is short, only taking a few minutes and once mated, the female grouse selects a secluded nest site, usually under brush or at the base of a tree. There she will lay from six to 16 eggs in a leaf-lined depression on the ground.Following an incubation period of about 24 days, the chicks will leave the nest as soon as they are dry. The precocious chicks are capable of feeding themselves immediately, begin to fly within a week, and can fly well by three weeks of age.

Grouse chicks require large amounts of animal protein for the first few weeks of life. Small forest openings provide abundant insects and cover for feeding chicks. Chicks grow rapidly, increasing quickly from about ½ ounce at hatching to near adult weight four months later. Their diet will gradually shift to green plant materials and fruits as they become older. Adult grouse eat many types of food depending of the season. They consume protein-rich insects, blackberries, blueberries and other wild fruits during summer, and both hard- and soft-mast fruits (acorns, beechnuts, cherries, barberries, wild grapes, apples, dogwood fruits) along with various buds and leaves during autumn. Buds, especially those of aspen, birch, beech, maple, cherry and apple, are the grouse’s primary winter diet. Ferns, green leaves and other evergreen foods are eaten until food becomes more available in the spring.

Predation and disease are the primary mortality factors. Skunks, raccoons and crows are known nest predators while fox, coyote and bobcat consume both chicks and adult grouse. Raptors such as Cooper’s hawk, goshawk and great horned owl are probably the most efficient grouse predators. Recent research in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Northeast indicate that West Nile Virus may be an important mortality factor, depending on the age birds are infected.

Fish and Wildlife biologists carefully considered all available data and concluded that, at its current population level, the grouse population size is insufficient to support regulated hunting. The Upland Bird Committee of the NJ Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs agreed and endorsed the proposal, and the Fish and Game Council voted to close the ruffed grouse hunting season at their June 2019 meeting.

A recovery plan is being completed which will include habitat management to encourage population growth where grouse still exist. It will also include the parameters to be met to reopen the season when and if the population responds to management efforts. Fish and Wildlife has already begun examining its Wildlife Management Areas in the northern portion of the state to determine where best to enhance existing young forest stands and create new patches of early succession habitat. Other DEP lands may also be available for habitat improvements. Forest management on private lands will also be promoted so that the ruffed grouse may remain a viable wildlife species in New Jersey.

MORE INFORMATION

Ruffed Grouse Society

Disturbed Forest – The Forsaken Science of Healthy Forests (Ruffed Grouse Society Video)

The Scientific Impact of West Nile on Ruffed Grouse (Ruffed Grouse Society)

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Department of Environmental Protection
P. O. Box 420
Trenton, NJ 08625
609-777-3373
Last Update: December 5th, 2022