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Outdoors: Small game season gets underway

The second part of the small game season gets underway this Saturday (Oct. 19) when squirrel, rabbit and grouse become legal game.

Of the trio, squirrels are the most plentiful and their sweet meat makes for excellent table fare be it in a stew, creamed or as a primary meat with mashed or sweet potatoes and a green vegetable or two.

As for rabbits, there are more of them in the city of Allentown and suburbs, than there are in area farmland fields and woodlots. And the reason for that are coyotes, foxes and great horned owls who keep their numbers there severely in check.

Then comes the ruffed grouse, Pennsylvania’s state bird. This majestic, beautiful game bird is the fast flyer of the woodlands. Unfortunately, their numbers are low and getting lower. In fact, the PGC closed the post Christmas season for them.

According to the PGC in their fall and winter hunting survey, avid grouse hunters (i.e. cooperators) were sent survey forms in October 2017. Forty-four percent of 595 Cooperators submitted hunt information. Usable replies were received from 206 of 262 responding cooperators; the remaining 56 submitted “did not hunt” responses. Grouse Cooperators submitted data on 1,456 hunts, representing 4,135 hours of active grouse hunting. Grouse hunters averaged 20 hours hunted, 18 grouse flushed, and 0.87 grouse bagged during the 2017-2018 hunting season. Daily effort was greatest during the October (95.7 hours/available day) and November (83.7 hours/available day), followed by the December segment (71.3 hours/available day). December participation increased dramatically (up 96 percent compared to 2016) with the loss of the post-Christmas “Late Season” in 2017. The November portion of the season accounted for 52 percent of the statewide cooperator harvest, followed equally by December (24 percent) and October segments (24 percent).

The report goes on to say, statewide cooperators hunted 4,135 hours and recorded 3,641 flushes for an average rate of 0.88 flushes per hour. This flush rate of 0.88 represents a 6 percent decrease compared to the previous season and is the lowest flush rate observed in 53 years of population monitoring. It is 36 percent below the long term (52-year) average of 1.37 flushes per hour. Compared with the previous year, all regions exhibited decreased flush rates except the NW which ticked up (5 percent slightly. All regions are greatly below their respective 35-year long-term averages (Northwest -41%; Northcentral -22 percent; Northeast -38 percent; Southwest -51 percent; South central -66 percent; Southeast -32 percent). Even compared to 10-year short-term averages, all regions except the Southeast are currently very depressed (Northwest -41 percent; Northcentral -24 percent; Northeast -22 percent; Southwest -25 percent; South central -44 percent; Southeast -6 percent).

Without the relatively high annual abundance in the Northwest and Northcentral regions the statewide flush rate falls precipitously lower. In these regions, the mix of northern hardwoods and oak forests provides optimum nutrition, while active forest management within a largely forested landscape provides abundant habitat. Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that after years of high West Nile Virus (WNV) prevalence, these regions cannot be counted on to produce an abundance of grouse, which drops the statewide average below one bird/hour to a record-low 0.88 flushes/hour in 2017-18 license year. In other areas of the state, the South central and Northeast regions retain relatively large-scale forested landscapes with suitable forest types, yet they seem to be under-producing grouse.

Best bet for grouse, the Blue Mountain. One veteran grouse hunter once told me the secret to finding them is to traverse the rugged terrain at the top of the Blue. A good hunting dog helps too.

Press photo by Nick HromiakThe ruffed grouse is Pennsylvania's beautiful state bird, but their numbers have been decreasing for a number of reasons.