MN Outdoors:  Ruffed grouse #1 upland game bird

Submitted by Blane Klemek
Crookston Times

    I hunted wild turkeys during the fall turkey hunting season this October. It was the first time I’ve ever hunted turkeys in the autumn. Since 2011 when I began hunting this special bird, it’s always been a springtime pursuit for me.

    On only the second morning of the month-long season, I was successful. There were at one count 23 hens and poults, three toms, and seven jakes surrounding me as I hunted inside my small popup hunting blind on a grain field next to public forestland. And by morning’s end I had bagged a 20-pound mature tom turkey. The bird will be my Thanksgiving turkey this November.

    Upon reaching my truck with my backpack full of gear and the bird, a man drove by where I was parked, backed up, and pulled into the woods next to me. After introductions and some small talk about the turkey, he asked me if I had seen any ruffed grouse. “As a matter of fact”, I replied, “I flushed three on the way out.”

    And then he said, “People say that turkeys eat grouse chicks and grouse eggs.” For the next ten minutes I tried to dispel the falsehood.

    For whatever reason there’s a common held belief that wild turkeys are competitors of ruffed grouse for available food, water, shelter, and space. Moreover, many people also believe that wild turkeys actively seek out ruffed grouse nests, consume their eggs, and even prey on ruffed grouse chicks. A couple of opinion pieces recently appeared in the Park Rapids Enterprise newspaper, both of which were written by people that opined wild turkeys negatively affected grouse by outcompeting grouse and preying on grouse eggs and chicks.

    The fact is, wild turkeys and ruffed grouse do not compete for essential elements needed for survival. While they do occupy together the same basic habitat and consume some of the same foods, wild turkeys and ruffed grouse have been coexisting for eons and get along just fine. Both species are native to North America and neither species has a negative population effect on the other.  

    While it is possible from time to time that an opportunist turkey happening upon an abandoned nest of eggs of a ground nesting bird—any bird—may consume the eggs, wild turkeys do not actively go about their lives searching for the eggs and chicks of birds to eat.

    And yet people continue to place blame on wild turkeys whenever ruffed grouse populations decrease in areas where both wild turkeys and ruffed grouse cohabit. These beliefs are not based in any scientific facts whatsoever. These views are plain and simply rumors, misrepresentations, and untruths. Wild turkeys have no impact on ruffed grouse populations and ruffed grouse habitat.

    What it boils down to for any species that experience population declines is primarily habitat, but other factors also contribute to a species’ population both locally and broadly across landscapes. In the case of ruffed grouse this is certainly true, as this species’ natural 10-year population cycle plays out. At present, Minnesota’s ruffed grouse population is at a downward midpoint in this natural population cycle.

    Other factors that affect wildlife populations? As mentioned, habitat is a big one. Forest types change over time. In some cases what was once outstanding ruffed grouse habitat is no longer as suitable because forests mature over time. Ruffed grouse are an early successional habitat species. Put another way, they prefer younger aged aspen. Disease, climate change, and wet springs all affect ruffed grouse populations, too, through individual deaths and impacts to reproductive success.  

    Wild turkey populations in many parts of northern Minnesota is increasing, which is a good thing, not a bad thing. Ruffed grouse will always be here and ruffed grouse will always be the #1 upland game bird that DNR wildlife biologists and foresters manage habitat for. Indeed, wild turkeys and ruffed grouse will coexist and continue to thrive as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.