The Wild Side: Counting up our game birds
It is brood observation time at the DNR. Each year since 1970, DNR employees have been writing down all the game bird broods they see in the course of their day-to-day tasks. This could help explain some erratic behavior you might have seen in the past. If you ever saw a vehicle suddenly pull over and a seemingly normal adult jumped out and chased a bird into the woods, it was probably a DNR employee. We are supposed to get a complete count of numbers of adults and young. We are also supposed to record the approximate age of the chicks, to the nearest week. This is trickier than it sounds, especially at highway speeds. The only way to be certain you saw and counted them all is to follow them in a little ways.
Turkeys are, in my opinion, the easiest to observe. The adults usually stand on the road shoulder while the chicks move through the ditch grass searching for insects. Often times simply pulling over is enough to send the group scrambling for cover. Turkey chicks (or poults) are actually pretty big, which makes them easier to see without getting out of the truck.
I was out in the woods with Newswatch 12’s Michael Crusan this week, checking in with my co-workers who were wrapping up a bear survey. We saw several turkeys, and even saw a brood standing right in the middle of the road. At first it looked like just a flock of turkeys-the poults were fully feathered, and almost the same size as the adults. The only trick to counting turkeys might be accurately recording the number of adults and young. Turkeys exhibit a behavior known as gang brooding. This means that a hen with several young may seek out another hen with several young, and work together to care for all the chicks. This means recording one brood with two or three adults and 25 or 30 young is not impossible.
Ruffed grouse are a completely different story. The mother grouse makes every effort to stay concealed and inconspicuous. Very rarely do I see a grouse brood while travelling on a paved road. I have to be on a gravel road in the woods. Usually, my tip-off is seeing grass moving in different directions. I usually can’t stop until I have passed the grouse brood, and I have to double back, wasting precious seconds.
Those grouse chicks may be fluffy and cute and little, but man can they run. Plus, they have this skill of going from a full bore run to squatting down and disappearing instantly. Meanwhile, the mother grouse puts on a big show, pretending she is injured with a broken wing. She squawks and flops and spins around in circles. You can be certain she is moving in the opposite direction of the chicks, trying to lead you away. Don’t worry, mom and chicks are fine. This is all well-rehearsed, and the fact that she still has chicks tells you they have mastered the art of illusion. Later in the survey period, the chicks can fly, and it gets easier. You walk back toward the spot until the first one flies, and then you stop and wait. If you are lucky, they will pop out of the grass one by one, like popcorn kernels.
Last year the average number of ruffed grouse broods observed during the ten week observation period was 0.66 per participant. This is a 23 percent decrease from 2010 but still above average. The number of young grouse per brood was 4.2 in 2011, which is above the average of 4.2. There were 2.62 turkey broods seen per observer last year, 23 percent lower than 2010 (3.42), but higher than the long-term average of 1.84. Average brood size was 4.5 poults, same as in 2010. With the warm temperatures and availability of insects, I think we are in for a good year for young birds.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.