Wildlife Watch: Ruffed grouse

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Ruffed grouse -- sometimes called partridge -- are a ground-dwelling game bird. But their numbers have been in the decline and researchers say west nile virus might be to blame. Our Ike Bendavid talked with Vermont Fish and Wildlife's Mark Scott to find out more.

Courtesy: Vt. Fish and Wildlife

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Mark what is a ruffed grouse?
Mark Scott: It's a group in the bird family that's considered an upland game bird. You find them wherever you see aspen distribution in North America. They live on that tree in the wintertime to get the buds. I describe them as a small wild chicken. They are about a pound or so. You don't get to see them. They are in the forest, unlike this, where we are walking today. They love dense, thick, young forest growth.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So they are tough to see.
Mark Scott: They are tough to see. What happens is they will scare you. They take off and go... {makes bird noise} The wings will make a lot of noise when they are flying off through the woods and their wings are hitting the brush and it may startle people if they are on horseback, riding or walking or things like that. But most Vermonters call them partridges.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: The population has been on the decline, why is that?
Mark Scott: Region wise, mostly because of the loss of habitat the loss of young forest. In Vermont alone today we only have two or three percent of the state is what we call that young forest state -- forest that's 15 to 20 years old. Most of that is in the NEK part of the state where six percent of that land we now consider young forest. You get down to the southern part of the state, Brattleboro, Bennington, we are talking less then one percent where you will find young forest habitat. It's basically because Vermont trees have grown up. We are dealing with forests that are more mature and as a result, those animals that depend on the young forest have lost their defense. But a new ones coming on the stage too -- west nile virus -- And what's happening is we really don't know the full effect that it may have on grouse. So, about four years ago the state of Pennsylvania that actually has grouse as their state bird started studying them. They are finding out that there are a lot of mortality happening with the young birds from this virus that the bird carries. We saw west nile virus raise havoc on blue jays, chickadees, bluebirds, crows -- seems to be more common in the crow family.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: How can you tell if it's west nile virus?
Mark Scott: You couldn't tell. We might walk across a bird that's sick, someone might see it not acting well with symptoms that maybe it's got a neurological dysfunction so it could be falling over. But there is no way to test. You can test from the blood looking for the virus that's in there,

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Are the birds more likely to get the virus?
Mark Scott: Mostly in birds because they are so mobile. Mostly in birds. We see in mammals some. Definitely birds -- it seems to the birds we call corvids -- the crow family. Bluejays and crows. But now all of a sudden we are seeing it in grouse, because we are looking for it number one -- it's fairly new here. We are probably going to be looking at other birds. There is some concern for wild turkeys. We have plenty of turkeys here. We don't have all the answers but we are starting to look a little closer.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So for hunters what are you asking from them?
Mark Scott: So we are asking hunters that if they harvest a bird this fall to send us a blood sample. That's all we are looking for. And also send us some feathers on the birds. We can tell that way by looking at the age and sex of the bird by looking at certain feathers.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is there a solution?
Mark Scott: The solution is habitat. The birds are recovering. We find these diseases that affect wildlife. If you have the habitat -- that means the food, good shelter -- they are going to do fine, they will weather the storm. Our concern in Vermont long term with the ruffed grouse is that we are losing the young forest. People prefer to have woods that are not cut. They are not harvesting the timber. They like an open park like habitat and grouse do not do well in that habitat.