Canary in the Coal Mine, Grouse in the Habitat

Like a canary in the coal mine, grouse tell us something about the habitat. Miners knew, if the canary stayed alive, there was enough fresh, “new” air in the mine shaft. Similarly, thriving ruffed grouse populations indicate enough “new” woodland habitat on the landscape. Critically, many wildlife and tree species depend completely on these “new” or young woodlands.

Ruffed grouse
Photo of ruffed grouse by WI Department of Natural Resources

Scott Walter, Upland Wildlife Ecologist for Wisconsin DNR describes it this way: “Every acre of mature oak and aspen today started as an open, sun-drenched, brushy, young woodland. Declining grouse populations indicate a lack of young woodland, but more importantly, the indicate the inability to regenerate oak and aspen, important components of Southern Wisconsin’s wildlife habitat and timber industry.”

Young woodlands allow lots of sunlight to reach the ground, benefiting wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings and saplings. With few, if any, mature trees, these “brushy” areas, as landowners might view them, provide tremendous food, shelter, and space for deer, turkey, fox, rabbit, and many songbirds such as flycatchers, towhees, vireos, and warblers.

Several wildlife species can’t survive without young woodlands, including the whip-poor-will, golden-winged warbler, woodcock and, of course, ruffed grouse. And, it’s important to remember it’s not just the wildlife, oaks and aspen need full sunlight to establish and survive.

Not that long ago, young woodlands and grouse were widespread across Wisconsin. “In the 1970s, we loved going to Richland and Adams Counties to grouse hunt. Today, no question we head north,” says Dave Chesky, Sauk County landowner and long-time upland bird hunter.

In support of this, the annual grouse survey, conducted since 1964, suggests both declining populations of grouse and loss of young woodlands statewide, but most markedly in Southern Wisconsin.

Young woodlands are created again as mature trees topple; disease, insects, wind, fire, and harvesting all create a disturbance or a “resetting of the clock.”

John Annear, a Richland County woodland owner recalls, “I fell in love with my land just the way it was, avoiding change. Bu through my forest management plan I created brushy openings and realized beneficial change. I have never enjoyed bow hunting as much as seeing the wildlife use the areas I created. I have even seen grouse return.”