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The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will hold public hearings over the next several weeks concerning two petitions to shorten the ruffed grouse season. Currently the grouse season ends on December 31. The petitions seek to end the season November 30. Maine’s ruffed grouse hunting season opens October 1.
The first public hearing was held June 12 at the Calais Rod and Gun Club. The second public hearing will be on June 27, 2007 at the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club on Parsons Road in Presque Isle at 6:30 p.m. The third public hearing will be July 18 at the Farmington Municipal Building on 153 Farmington Falls Road in Farmington at 6:30.
There also is an open public comment period that ends July 30, 2007. Anyone wishing to comment on the proposal to shorten the grouse season by eliminating the December hunt should do so by mailing their comments to Andrea L. Erskine, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 41 SHS, Augusta, ME 04333 or e-mailing by July 30, 2007.
Most folks are not aware of the unique nature of grouse (or, as we prefer to call them, partridge). They are one of the few truly wild game birds in the world that can’t be domesticated or raised in captivity, and so the only way to manage them is to provide good habitat – they will do the rest.
The best partridge cover consists of thickets of mixed saplings and alders, and overgrown apple orchards – low brush that provides both food and escape cover (these chicken-sized birds fly low and fast to escape danger). Partridges are rarely found in open fields, and while they often roost in mature hemlocks at night, they are mostly creatures of dense cover where you most often hear them go out the back door in a whir of wings. They have the most disconcerting habit of sitting quietly on the ground or in a tree and waiting till you wander by or, even worse, stop for a moment to look around. At your next step they’ll zoom up and away like a rocket, scaring you half to death and disappearing from sight in two blinks of an eye.
These popular fall targets are commonly found near gravel roads and other small openings where they peck around for insects, tender greens and gravel. The majority of hunters simply wander old logging roads all day till they manage to take a limit of four birds. In some parts of Maine you can be back at the truck in 20 minutes with your limit – there are lots of birds out there and plenty of room to roam.
In December and through the winter, the birds tend to spend their time roosting and loafing in the hemlocks (because the leaves are off the hardwoods and there is little food available there). They focus on the buds of poplar trees as their primary food source, and it’s not unusual to find as many as eight or 10 grouse in a single tree in late afternoon (meaning 3 p.m. at that time of year!), all busily budding in anticipation of another long night on the roost.
One interesting (and potentially dangerous) habit winter grouse exhibit is their tendency to dive into the snow and spend their nights well insulated from the frigid air. It is quite an event to be walking through the woods on a brisk winter morning and have a grouse suddenly burst out of the snow between your feet! I have had this happen many times while rabbit hunting in February and March, and often during midday, too – apparently the birds will spend a day or even two tucked cozily under the snow if conditions warrant it.
The tactic is a smart one from a winter survival standpoint, but if there’s a harsh winter storm that ends with freezing rain, a crust can form over the bird, trapping it there. I remember one such winter when it was almost impossible to plow because the snowfall was not only deep but also a good two-inch crust formed over it all like a coating of ice. That spring I found no fewer than six pitiful piles of grouse feathers on my own 20-acre lot, suggesting that the birds dove into the snow to escape the storm but died there before the crust melted.
I have not been able to contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife regarding the petitions to shorten the season but I’m guessing that winter mortality is an issue, as is over-hunting and possibly a loss of suitable habitat in many areas. There may be localized problems that include any or all of the above, but on a statewide basis I think that grouse are plentiful, adaptable and more than able to sustain the December hunt. For one thing, few hunters are out there in December looking for birds – there are some deer seasons going on and the majority of hunters will opt to spend their time and energy in search of 200 pounds of venison rather than coming home with one or two rather small birds.
Plus, from a purely sporting standpoint, there are few hunters who can go out day after day in December and bring home a limit of partridge. These are not your lazy, lackadaisical birds of October. Conditions are harsh in December and the birds respond by sticking to the evergreens, flushing far out of range and generally being very uncooperative (whether you hunt with a dog or not). You’ll have a lucky day once in a while but I wouldn’t plan on filling the freezer with birds in December!
I have not seen any figures on grouse harvests in December or the effects of the December season on the statewide grouse population, but having spent many a chilly hour in the winter woods in search of grouse, I’d say the impact is minimal. I have hunted December grouse in Maine with and without dogs and felt lucky to come home with two birds most days. Taking a limit of four is something to write home about.
At worst, if the December season is eliminated we’ll be back where we always were, with an Oct. 1 to Nov. 30 season. Hunters won’t be giving up much in the long run, but here’s hoping there’s a reasonable, biological explanation for doing so!
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