Late Season Grouse on NY Public Land

roost.jpgMy wife and I were enjoying a cross-country ski in a New York State Forest.  There was a foot of fresh powder snow and the skiing conditions were perfect.  We had stopped at a trail junction to chat and enjoy the scenery.  It was a cold quiet day in the woods with almost no wind.  The snow was untracked. Except for our ski tracks behind us. The serenity was shattered by the eruption of a large brown bird only inches from my ski tips. It materialized from nowhere, leaving a cloud of fine snow crystals in the air as it disappeared into the woods.  Diane exclaimed, “What was that!”  Like most human beings, she had never seen the spectacle of a ruffed grouse exploding from a snow roost.  I was back the next day, this time with dogs and shotgun. We found several grouse in the area, taking one.  


scat.jpgFinding grouse in snow roosts is rare. Finding unoccupied snow roosts is more common. It's another sign that grouse are living in the area.  It’s going to be a softball to football sized hole in the snow, and it will always have a pile of droppings in the bottom.  If the grouse was using it recently, you might see a set of tracks from the grouse leaving the roost on foot. Other times there are no tracks, indicating the grouse emerged and immediately flew.  You can find snow roost sites even on bare ground after the snow is gone. The telltale pile of droppings will remain after the snow has melted.  Grouse will sometimes roost on the ground when there is no snow. These look much the same as the melted snow roosts.  

Snow roosting is a fascinating, very practical survival behavior for grouse. But, it's only one aspect of late season grouse hunting. My favorite thing about winter hunting is the extra information fresh snow provides.  I love to use this time of year to scout new covers to add to our always growing list.  Grouse use a small area for most of their lives.  If I see tracks in the snow when scouting a new area, it’s added to my list to come back to. Even if I don’t move a single bird. tracks1.jpgBut how to know where to start when looking at new places to hunt?  There always needs to be thick brushy ground cover nearby.  Grouse need evergreens year-round. In the winter, they especially need evergreen cover.  This is a general rule and grouse like to break rules. But, when trying to sort out new locations I’ve never set foot on, I like to see some evergreens nearby. 

 Let’s assume you’ve found some covers that hold birds. What is different about the actual hunting in winter?  Grouse will be on the ground sometimes in winter, even when there is snow on the ground.  But compared to early season, they are more likely to spend more of their day in trees.  The trees they choose to spend time in will usually be some type of evergreen.  In NY that often means spruce, balsam fir, hemlock, or white pine. But they will use any type of evergreen trees that provide cover from predators.  Rarely, grouse are found in deciduous trees. For example, when they are feeding on tree buds or when they have flushed from the ground to a nearby tree. These birds will likely be on high alert. Hold your gun high, as tree flushes are more likely, and you will be swinging on a target that starts high overhead.  If you hold your muzzles in the normal “ready” position like in October, the grouse will be gone before you can shoot.  For right handed shooters, hold your left hand above your head and your gun nearly straight up. Your eyes are looking up.  It gets tiring holding like this all the time, so I only do this in “birdy” situations. For example, when my dog is on point or when I’ve heard a flush nearby.   tracks2.jpg

This only scratches the surface of winter grouse hunting. But it may give you a couple of things to focus on when you’re out there for late season grouse.     


Want to go but not sure where to start?  The New York DEC has an interactive mapping app that shows all of the NY public lands managed by the DEC.  The map is called the “DECInfo Locator” and is located at DECinfo Locator - NYDEC.  I suggest turning on the following layers: “DEC Lands” and “Wildlife Management Areas”.  Everything that is shaded on the map is public land.  


Contributed by Gary Stefani, Gary joined BHA in 2020, and is a volunteer with the NY Chapter Communications Team. He has been grouse hunting since he was fourteen, and currently spends many hours training bird dogs.

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