A warm, dry summer that allowed more newly hatched ruffed grouse chicks to survive should lead to hunters seeing more grouse in the woods when hunting seasons start Saturday in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
A mother grouse may have up to a dozen chicks in the spring and in a cold, damp summer many of them can perish. This year more of them appear to still be around and available for hunters to flush when the season starts.
Official spring drumming counts were down in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, signaling a continued drop in the cyclical grouse population that peaks roughly every 10 years. Minnesota's drumming count was 1.3 drums per stop this spring, down from a recent high of 2.1 drums per stop in 2017.
But biologists say the number of young grouse that survive each year can be an even bigger factor in hunter success than population trends. Data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' study of West Nile virus in grouse in recent years produced a surprising side statistic: More than two-thirds of all grouse shot in a fall season were hatched that year.
Of all the grouse turned in for the West Nile study in 2018, 64% were juveniles, hatched just a few months before they were shot. In 2019 the percentage of juveniles in the bag hit 71%.
Wildlife managers in both Wisconsin and Minnesota say they are cautiously optimistic that hunters should see a good number of birds this fall just as they did in 2020, another warm, dry summer.
“Early field reports indicate good reproduction in northern St Louis County. Field staff report seeing scattered, large broods throughout the summer,” noted Tom Rusch, Tower-area wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR. “Nesting conditions were excellent. Drought conditions produce abundant insect hatches throughout summer, so reproduction should also be excellent.”
Minnesota's grouse hunting season runs through Jan. 2, and Wisconsin's runs through Jan. 9.