Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL— Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring population counts remained similar to last year, which suggests the summer began with grouse numbers at peak levels, particularly in northeastern Minnesota. That could bode well for the fall grouse harvest, although the link between spring counts and hunter harvest isn’t always direct. Grouse reproductive success is another important factor in determining harvest levels when the fall grouse season opens on Saturday, Sept. 14.
The Minnesota DNR and its partners use spring drumming counts to help monitor the ruffed grouse breeding population over time. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting.
The spring surveys are conducted by listening for drumming grouse at a series of pre-determined stops along established routes during an allotted time period. In recent years, the survey has indicated higher grouse numbers than long-term averages based on nearly 75 years of survey work. The most recent low point in the roughly ten-year population cycle was in 2021, although numbers never fell as far as most previous low points historically. Based on this year’s spring count, grouse numbers appear to be the highest since 1972, although the counts varied significantly by region. Northeastern Minnesota routes saw an average of 2.7 drumming grouse per stop, an exceptionally high number. This year’s statewide average drum count was 2.3 drums per stop, which is above the 2.1 drums heard during the two most recent previous peaks in the cycle.
Only northwestern Minnesota saw a decline in grouse numbers this year, based on the survey.
Warm temperatures and dry conditions that favor high nest success and chick survival the last few years may partly explain the historically high drumming counts, according to the DNR. Snow conditions were also favorable for roosting throughout much of the core of grouse range during the winters of 2021-2022 and 2022-2023, followed by an unusually warm winter during 2023-2024. Minnesota’s climate is getting warmer and wetter with more heavy, intense rainfalls occurring.
“While ruffed grouse drumming counts are high in the core of ruffed grouse range, indicating a strong breeding population this spring, drumming counts are not an accurate way to predict the birds that will be present during the fall hunting season,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “Nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer are among the factors that influence the number of birds present in the fall. These factors can be reduced by heavy rain during June when nests are hatching and chicks are young.”
This past June saw exceptionally heavy rain, although the rain was generally not accompanied by chilly weather, which tends to exacerbate the mortality of young grouse when combined with rain.
The ruffed grouse survey report can be found on the grouse management webpage of the DNR website at mndnr.gov/wildlife/grouse.html.