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Feathery Bigfoot

The first time I saw a grouse, it was dead already. Our fierce, mountain man of a project coordinator for the Montana Conservation Corps had come out for a site visit to our project in the Nez Perce national forest, and after work one day he headed down to a small lake to fish. On his way back, he saw a grouse, kicked it (it was in season), and carried it back to our campsite for a dinner of “sushi rolls” made with grouse breast and trout, both freshly harvested from within 500 feet of our camp.

Spruce grouse, yummy

Our project coordinator had demonstrated the reason grouse occasionally go by the name “fool hen.” Outside of spring, when males find a big log or stump to sit on and fill the woods with a thunderous drumming of their wings, they make few sounds and wait until the last possible second to flush. If you spot one, it will wait until you practically step on it to move, relying instead on camouflage.

If you have a clever human, with sharp vision and an awareness of your reticence to flush, this can make the birds seem especially foolish. But, for every grouse you see thinking “why doesn’t it fly away?” there’s likely several more in the surrounding cover for which the strategy is working magnificently.

Easy to miss

It stands to reason that, mentally, my conceptions of the bird were associated with that environment. Ecology, like any science, often becomes confounded by personal experience: “I observed this phenomenon in this context, and therefore, that is the only context I should expect to see it.” But that's not how science works at all.

Thanks to those ninja-like hiding skills and my own observational biases, I got quite a start in October of 2018 when I flushed a vaguely-familiar bird from a dense thicket at Buck Creek county park. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and sat quietly while flipping my woefully-inadequate mental rolodex of birds who might look and behave like that.

“That wasn’t… Was that a grouse???”

I got to googling. Sure enough, Northeast Iowa once harbored a rich population of Ruffed Grouse. In this part of their range they typically occur in dense woody cover, usually within sight of an Aspen tree (a critical winter food source), which is precisely where I’d flushed the bird.

Range of the ruffed grouse

I started looking up whatever info I could find on Ruffed Grouse within our local ecology. First came a flush of news articles lamenting their decline, substantiated by bowhunter surveys and now-defunct roadside surveys conducted by the Iowa DNR from the 70’s through the 90’s when the lack of birds started to render them less valuable.

Then I started into the more rigorous literature in search of an answer for their drastic decline. Most of the evidence suggests the loss and fragmentation of habitat might explain it, at least in part. Grouse have delicate tastes when it comes to setting up shop. They need “coarse woody debris,” i.e. large logs or stumps on which to drum in the mating season. They need extremely dense woody cover for nesting and brood rearing, with at least some areas open enough for the tiny chicks to move around easily. And they need aspen trees, ideally quaking (tremoides) but bigtooth (grandidentata) will work in a pinch, and ideally less than 30 years old.

Ruffed grouse habitat in Pennsylvania

In short, they need precisely the kind of woods we hate walking through – jungley, brushy, thorny, full of tiny saplings of a tree species for which our state's timber industry has little use. Further complicating their recovery, a grouse won’t travel far in search of such habitat, living out most of its life in the same 40 acres in which it hatched. Fall shuffling males may move ten miles in search of new territory, but in Iowa, that still may not be enough to land on a suitable site.

At least, that’s what the formal research suggests. Radio telemetry and nesting surveys provide one avenue for conservation knowledge, but anecdotal reports from people who have lived within the landscape for decades can provide a valuable supplement.

Talk to those who remember the grouse heyday in Iowa and you’ll be treated to a variety of explanations based on personal experience for why they’ve all but disappeared.

Nest predation from raccoons commonly comes up when I ask Seems sensible enough, maybe warrants a little more formal study. Indeed, data exists to suggest mortality from raccoons, skunk, foxes, mink, otters, and coyotes all play a significant role in population trends, and all of those animals are a lot more common now than in the 1970’s heyday of grouse harvesting. Trapping has become a dying art, so these potential nest predators all have less pressure on them than they did 50 years ago.

Hand in the cookie jar

“Used to be everyone ran cows in their woods, and you’d see grouse all over those pastured timbers, now they’re all on feedlots and the woods filled in and the grouse are gone,” one local woodsman told me during a conversation about the feathery bigfoot.

This one seems less likely, but who knows. I would wager that the relationship was another example of observation bias confusing the actual ecology; it’s a heck of a lot easier to see a grouse skittering through an open oak woodland than it is to spot one hunkered down in an impenetrable dogwood thicket. But ecology is complicated. There's certainly the possibility that somehow cattle could help create and maintain good grouse habitat. Perhaps by being such terrible foresters, they kept the successional clock on the right setting.

Confirmation bias visualized

Some have even posited that turkeys are eating the grouse eggs, since in the middle twentieth century we had lots of grouse and few turkeys, and now we've got lots of turkeys and few grouse. This is one of my favorites, since it’s a clear example of spurious correlation, a statistical term for two variables that appear related but actually have nothing to do with each other. In the 1970’s, early forest habitat abounded as the prairies and over-harvested woodlands of the early 20th century went through habitat succession into young forest. Fast forward another half century and, yes, we have more turkeys than grouse thanks to a successful reintroduction campaign. But part of that stems from the habitat requirements for each; the early successional grouse habitat gave way to the more mature oak woodlands favored by turkeys. Maybe, just maybe, a turkey might eat a grouse egg, but more likely, the habitat simply changed to the benefit of one species and detriment of another.

Turkeys enjoying an open oak woodland

These landowner reports do have one consistent element. When asked if they have seen any grouse on their property, anyone of a sufficient age has paused, thought about it, and responded “It’s been a long time.”

Since my encounter at Buck Creek, we had one more grouse spotted here at Osborne by a board member, and just this month I nearly hit one on my drive home just outside McGregor in what seemed like totally unsuitable grouse habitat. It made me wonder if, perhaps, with such a secretive and quiet bird, we might miss a lot of observations by only looking where we expect to see them.

Even worse, a lot of observations might go unreported because of a kind of feedback loop created by the population decline. People don’t see these birds anymore, and now whenever I’ve mentioned them in a classroom program or speaking casually with a park visitor, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people under 40 who even know they ever lived here.

The story of Ruffed Grouse in Iowa over the last 50 years represents a real opportunity. For such a quiet bird, they have a lot of charisma, from the distinctive sound of their spring drumming to the pulse-pounding response we have to their last-second flushing when encountered.

Grouse drummer rocking out

They share their plight, the loss of early successional habitat, with dozens of other songbirds experiencing similar population declines even with protection from hunters. Look at the list of bird species of conservation concern in Iowa; the early successional guild is extremely well represented.

To me, with the right kind of education campaign, Ruffed Grouse could become meaningful ambassadors for all manner of non-game species. Through focal management to provide habitat for one of Iowa’s legacy game birds, a whole host of other species would benefit. What's good for the grouse is good for the goldfinch.

But first we have to get an actual handle on what we’ve got. If you have or think you have a population, however small, of Ruffed Grouse on your property, let us know. Send an email to or call Osborne at 563-245-1516 with reports, photos, or even recordings of drumming males. Understanding the abundance and location of whatever grouse remain gives us a fighting chance at properly allocating time and energy into places where it will make the biggest difference.

Looking Back

August was absolutely packed with good times, punctuated at the very end by one very exciting flood. The O.W.L.S. got a chance to get out on the big river with a tour from the Maiden Voyage, an absolute institution boarding out of Marquette, Iowa. It turned out to be a beautiful day on the water, viewing eagles and learning the unique history of our little stretch of the nation's largest river. The Clayton County Archers held another archery shoot on the Osborne archery range, offering archers the perfect chance to hone their skills on some new targets. Check out the results here.

Kids camps continued with "undercover critters" letting the budding naturalists explore the world of camouflage and intrigue throughout the animal kingdom. No word on whether any grouse were sighted.

The "Nature All Around Us" art series continued with a session creating kindness rocks. Kindness rocks are painted stones or cobbles adorned with a cheerful message left behind for others to find or collect.

Kindness rockers

Habitat enthusiasts got a chance to learn about the triumphs and tribulations of oak savanna restoration with a walk through the south unit of Motor Mill. We even got to see the first blooms from the 125 prairie plugs planted up there this spring!

Hunter Education classes culminated with a whole class of newly-minted hunters ready to go this fall. Responsible hunting plays a crucial role in wildlife management, and the CCCB welcomes this new generation of stakeholders in the effort to preserve healthy ecosystems.

A program partnering the four northernmost counties along the Mississippi river took it's turn through Clayton County on the last day of the month. Paddlers, led by intrepid naturalists, made their way through historic Frenchtown Slough and into Guttenberg on a beautiful late summer afternoon.

Lastly, we wrapped up an online fundraiser for a renovation of the inn at Motor Mill, raising over $3,000 towards the hefty project. Many thanks to all who donated, and keep your eyes peeled for future fundraising efforts! In fact, now that I think about it... Looking Forward First up this September will be the annual Monarch Release Party, held this year on Friday, September 3rd at the Becker West Wildlife Area near Millville, IA. Bring your own monarchs to tag and release, or just come and learn about the fascinating life cycle and ongoing recovery efforts for this summertime icon.

O.W.L.S. will come back indoors for this month's program, "Osborne's Early Days," on September 16th at 11:00 AM. Naturalist Abbey Harkrader will provide amazing insights into the once-thriving town of Osborne, the present site of Clayton County Conservation Headquarters. Come catch of glimpse of old Iowa! On Saturday, September 18th at 9:30 AM, this year's habitat walks will wrap up with "Habitaturday" at Osborne Pond. We'll start with the pond itself before wandering up through an ongoing grouse habitat project (hey, imagine that) and into the site of the CCCB's newest prairie planting and a reconstruction in progress. Finally, on Thursday, September 30th, at 6:00 PM you'll have the chance to sweep that special someone off their feet with Date Night at Motor Mill. The fine folks at Turkey River Farms will provide some delicious farm-to-table fare, and I'll be out there hacking away at some classical guitar to provide a romantic sonic background worthy of the early fall splendor.


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Clayton County Conservation is now accepting applications for 2024 seasonal positions. Visit our Employment/Attracting Success page for info! 

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