Grouse season opened Saturday to little fanfare. Unlike pheasant season, with stocked birds that are essentially a put and take situation, our state bird remains a truly wild game bird and are the toughest to hunt.
Of late, their numbers are diminishing primarily because of a loss of habitat and disease promoted by West Nile Virus. They’re not over-hunted because these beautiful birds inhabit rugged terrain that some hunters don’t relish trekking through. And those who do, a good hunting dog can do much of the brush kicking work for these fast flyers.
According to Chuck Fergas of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, grouse have keen eyesight and hearing. At one time, they were not nearly as wary as they are today; reputedly, early settlers killed them with sticks and stones. Today, you may surprise a grouse bathing in the dust on a back road, in a sandy bare spot on the forest floor, or in the debris around a rotting stump.
Grouse seek shelter beneath conifers during stormy weather, and they roost in conifers and hardwoods. They may spend winter nights beneath the snow, sometimes flying directly into a soft snowbank at dusk.
Some years back my son and I along with a buddy and his son visited State Game Lands #217 off Mountain Road outside Slatedale for a winter hike. There was about a foot of snow on the ground and after parking the car, we began walking the trail up the side of the Blue Mountain. About 10 yards from the parking lot a grouse burst out of a snowbank startling us as we didn’t expect this to happen so close to the parking lot.
Grouse are not especially gregarious, although groups of birds are sometimes found together in the fall. These are usually a hen and her offspring of that year. During winter, a grouse’s feet develop snowshoe-like properties through the growth of a horny fringe around the toes.
Although its take-off is thunderous and powerful, a grouse cannot fly long distances. Its top flight speed is about 20 m.p.h. After take-off, it flies rapidly and then locks its wings and glides to safer territory, usually traveling less than 100 yards.
Hunter who pursue grouse should look for areas of mountain laurel and greenbrier thickets, especially those including some hemlocks or white pines; prolific sprout growth in areas that have been burned or logged within the last 10 years and are growing up again; dense pine clusters in immature hardwood forests; stands of wild crab and hawthorn trees; edges provided by logging roads and trails through wooded areas; and abandoned apple orchards near thick cover. Also look for grapevines, greenbriers, small conifers, thornapple trees and the like for grouse.
Grouse numbers are often cyclical and their local population has not been the best. Your may want to hunt the Blue Mountain all along Lehigh and Berks counties. Either that or the mountainous areas and game lands in the Pocono’s.
Some years ago while skiing at Blue Mountain Ski area and on a chairlift for a ride to the summit, I spotted a grouse sitting on a branch of a conifer. It’s evident from this these pretty game birds prefer this type of terrain and woodlands.
The initial season for grouse runs until Nov. 25 and starts up again Dec. 11 to Dec. 23. If you manage to down a grouse, be honored you were able to flush one, and be satisfied with a single as their numbers need to rebound.
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Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.