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Ruffed grouse season is almost here

Dick Martin • Sep 21, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Ohio's 2019 ruffed grouse season will open on Oct. 12, but few Hocking County outdoorsmen will be out there seeking them. There are still some good pockets of birds, mostly in southern, southeastern, and southwestern counties, but there's little question that the population has fallen dramatically over the past 40 years or so. It wasn't always like that.

Back when I was a youngster, it was almost routine for my uncles and I to line up along wooded hillsides from top to bottom and start walking on a morning hunt.

We were after rabbits primarily and had good dogs, but almost invariably we'd flush a few grouse and maybe a covey or two of quail. The grouse were wary birds and often they'd flush far ahead with only the distant beating of wings to mark them. But sometimes they'd hold tight and make an explosive flush almost under our feet. They came up like feathered rockets in a shower of leaves, an almost thunderclap of a flush that usually scared me half to death. By the time I recovered and raised my shotgun they'd be off flying at high speed, dodging branches and out of range before I could fire.

Sometimes, since everybody shot, we'd come home with a grouse or very rarely two, but in all those years of hunting I remember bringing just seven or eight birds into our house. They were treasured, though, each carefully plucked and dressed, and placed in mom's oven with bacon strips over their breast. Then everyone in the family got a piece and I remember my share well. It was tender, succulent, and wonderfully flavored, the finest birds I've ever eaten, though bobwhite quail were close behind.

If there's a question, it's why has a beautiful bird that's challenging to hit and extremely tasty gone down so much in population, and a wildlife biologist I talked to once had some answers. He said that when I was growing up, the small back roads of rural Ohio had innumerable small farms along their length. Most were only a few acres, enough for a hog or two, some chickens, maybe a milk cow, and a good-sized garden. Then people began to leave their farms and go to the cities where there were factory and mill jobs, and the little farms gradually grew up into brush and briers, grasses and thickets.

Ruffed grouse mothers don't feed their young like robins do, instead bringing the little chicks to these brushy clearings filled with protein-rich insects, seeds, and berries that allowed a high survival of the young. But gradually, those grown-up fields and areas of "edge" have turned into mature forest, and mature forest doesn't have much for young grouse to eat, which is why the population is down. He thought that clear-cutting a few acres here and there in good grouse country would allow food areas to grow again, but said "I don't really think that will ever happen."

Still, there are grouse out there waiting, a few at least, and if you're looking for a real challenge that's hard to hit and great eating, you might give them a try. They'll be worth the effort.

Hooks & Bullets: Recently the Put-in-Bay Township Park District and the Conservation Fund announced the conservation of 4.4 acres of critical migratory bird habitat on Ohio's Lake Erie Islands. The newly protected land joins 13 adjacent acres and 44 nearby acres already protected by the Park District. "The support from The Conservation Fund has allowed us to add additional acreage to our Middle Bass Island Wetland Forest Preserve ... providing habitat for migratory birds, amphibians, and other wildlife" said Lisa Brohl, CEO of the Park District.

Just in time for cooling temperatures and vibrant foliage, Ohio, Find It Here and the ODNR are teaming up to launch the "Fall in Ohio microsite" now available on Google. It's an easy-to-navigate online resource perfect for visitors seeking leaf peeping tips, fall color views, festival, and must-see attractions. Among highlights are the ODNR Fall Color Report, fall scenic route road trips, and Haunted Ohio.

Readers interested in nature shouldn't miss the Toledo Zoo's public sturgeon release on Saturday, Oct. 5. The sturgeon was once abundant in western Lake Erie, and the effort is part of a plan to help restore surgeon populations. For details visit toledozoo.org/conservation. Those who attend are invited to provide a $30 sponsorship if they wish.

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