Ruffed grouse are a species of conservation concern in Missouri. Their survival depends on the creation and maintenance of young forest habitats.
Grouse belong to the same family of birds as pheasants and turkeys. In Missouri and nearby states, ruffed grouse live in oak-hickory forests and forests with moderately moist soils and a mix of species, such as beech, sugar maple, and tulip tree. Male grouse tend to establish territories on ridges and upper slopes.
The keys to suitable ruffed grouse habitat are:
- Young forest with ample understory (woody shrubs, seedlings, and green, leafy plants)
- Brood cover (understory plants)
- Winter cover (red cedars, especially on upper slopes)
- Winter food (acorns, rosehips, catkins from hophornbeam)
Female grouse nest on the ground in mature forests, often next to a log or tree.
Young forests with a well-developed understory are crucial habitat for brood-rearing. After hatching, young grouse forage with the female parent under the cover of shrubs and leafy plants in these areas.
Ruffed grouse often roost in or under red cedar trees, especially in winter. They typically use cedars on upper slopes.
In spring, male ruffed grouse establish territories by drumming on fallen logs. The male perches on a log and rapidly opens and closes its wings to make a low-pitched drumming sound. Through this drumming display, the male grouse alerts other males of its presence and attracts females into its territory.
- Male grouse typically drum on logs that are 20–40 feet long and that allow them to be 9–15 inches above the ground.
- Drumming sites are usually on upper slopes within or next to patches of young forest.
- Sites have good visibility at ground level but dense cover above.
Ruffed grouse shift their diet with the seasons as food availability changes.
- Adult grouse feed on the leaves of herbaceous plants (green, nonwoody plants).
- Young grouse eat mostly insects and other invertebrates.
- Adult grouse eat the leaves of plants and may also eat fruits (wild grapes, blackberries, raspberries).
- Young grouse shift from foraging in moist forest to drier upland sites.
Fall and winter
- Grouse feed heavily on acorns, wild grapes, fruit of multiflora rose, and other wild fruits.
- The catkins of hophornbeam trees are an important winter staple.
- Oaks (acorns)
- American hophornbeam (catkins, buds, seeds)
- Wild plum
- Wild grapes
- Multiflora rose fruit (rosehips)
- Sumac berries
- Tick trefoil
- Poison ivy
A good mix of young forest, winter foods, and brood cover will satisfy the needs of ruffed grouse and help ensure the species remains a part of Missouri’s landscape.
Maintain Areas of Young Forest
Because wildfires and other natural forest disturbances rarely occur today, landowners will need to be proactive in creating and maintaining areas of forest with younger growth. Grouse will use regenerating forests for up to 25 years but stands that are 5–15 years old are best. Efforts to create grouse habitat should be carried out periodically over time.
Increase the Number of Oaks
Grouse greatly benefit from oak stands. Oak trees do not tolerate shade well, so to increase oak trees, you will likely need to reduce the forest canopy. It can take considerable disturbance to stimulate oak tree growth.
Shelterwood harvests allow new (young) stands of trees to grow under the partial shade of older trees that provide cover and food for grouse. Trees are removed so more sunlight can reach the forest floor and stimulate the growth of shrubs, leafy plants, and tree seedlings.
To best benefit grouse, areas of tree removal should be at least 2 acres, but 10 acres or more is better.
- Leave healthy trees that can provide acorns or fruit.
- Leave a variety of red and white oaks.
- Keep hophornbean trees in the understory but keep a balance between these and their impact on oak regeneration.
Temporary Forest Openings
Temporary Forest Openings (TFOs) are similar to shelterwood harvests but done at a smaller scale. TFOs create pockets of young forest within a forest of mature trees.
- TFOs can be as small as 1/4 acre.
- Place TFOs 1/10 to 1/4 mile apart.
- Create some TFOs on slopes (north- and east-facing slopes are most beneficial for grouse).
Low-intensity prescribed burning is a great way to improve the quality of oak forests for grouse. Oaks are fire-adapted. They have relatively thick bark and the ability to resprout quickly after fires, allowing them to outcompete less fire-tolerant species. Create a mosaic of burned areas on a 1- to 4-year rotation.
Other Forms of Habitat Management
Old fields that have been left idle can provide habitat for grouse when shrubs and other plants start to regrow. Grouse will use woody shrubs and patches of vegetation for cover and feed on fruit-bearing shrubs and vines.
To maintain or improve old fields as habitat for grouse:
- Cut down pole-sized or larger trees but leave some for cover and acorns.
- Use prescribed fires to remove unwanted plant species.
- Mow or cut thick grasses and brush.
To speed up the growth of old field habitat on cropland, plow or disk at a low depth to break up thick root systems of grasses or crops and allow other plants to grow.
If managed properly, small openings in the forest canopy or the edges of infrequently traveled woods roads can provide food for grouse during fall and winter and can serve as brood habitat if cover is nearby.
- Sow the borders of woods roads with perennial clovers and an annual grass or cereal grain, like winter wheat or oats.
- Mow the openings annually to help maintain legumes in these areas.
- Reseed and apply lime fertilizer periodically.
Eastern Red Cedar
Small patches of red cedar can protect grouse during winter weather. The tree limbs provide roosting areas with thermal cover. Landowners might consider leaving small clusters of cedars on ridge tops where grouse prefer to roost during winter.
Soft mast (fruit) is an important food for grouse. Managers should favor fruit-producing trees and shrubs during timber harvest or plant them as needed. (See list of food plants for grouse above.)
Contact your local MDC private land conservationist for more information and recommendations for managing habitat on your property.