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I live in a coastal New England town and while reading a local history I noticed frequent mention of the "partridge" as being a commonplace bird in the area. Now, however, this bird which is more specifically the ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus, is completely absent in our community and not to be seen at all. There are many turkeys, however. I am trying to understand what happened to them.

I read that apparently the critical ecological prerequisite for the grouse is "young stands of forest". For example, from one report: "Though grouse use all age classes of forests, they cannot do without thick stands of young forests 5 to 25 years old for cover, food, brood rearing and courting."

Our community used to be gentleman farming town and was mostly cleared for agriculture, except for a town forest, before 1950. Since that time it has evolved into quasi suburban town with a mix of conservation land, large 3 acre residential lots, and a few farms left over from the old days.

I don't quite understand how there could have been lots of grouse in the farming days, but none now. First of all, in the farming days, more or less the whole town was agricultural fields, so that hardly seems like grouse habitat. Secondly, how could grouse even exist in the pre-colonial times, because the habitat at that time would be primordial forest. When the first settlers came here in the 17th century the whole area was covered in 100 foot eastern pine trees, which were farmed for masts for the English navy.

So, should I presume that the grouse first came into the area when the farmers started cutting down all the trees, thus allowing "young stands" to arise; then the grouse population collapsed when most farming ceased in the 1950s?

If the grouse need "young stands", how do grouse even exist in areas without humans where no clear cutting occurs? I have read claims that "forest fires" clear areas naturally, but that is not the case in New England where it is too wet for forest fires to occur. For example, in Maine the ruffed grouse is abundant, but only in the "transitional zone" between unoccupied forest lands and abandoned agricultural lands where humans have cut down the trees and then left the land unoccupied. There are no "forest fires" to speak of in Maine, so the grouse apparently live only in areas modified by humans. However, this raises the question of how the grouse lived before there were farmers with axes.

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    $\begingroup$ It's "ruffed" not "ruffled". A common error. Ruffed is pronounced as a single syllable. $\endgroup$
    – MTA
    May 23 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MTA In New England they are actually ruffled grouse. They wear little lace Elizabethan collars around their neck. It's very cute. $\endgroup$ May 23 at 14:47

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When I am curious how things were with American birds back 200 years ago, I read Audubon.

https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/ruffed-grouse

Although these birds are particularly attached to the craggy sides of mountains and hills, and the rocky borders of rivers and small streams, thickly mantled with evergreen trees and small shrubs of the same nature, they at times remove to low lands, and even enter the thickest cane-brakes, where they also sometimes breed...

The charming groves which here and there contrast so beautifully with the general dull appearance of those parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, to which the name of Barrens is given, are sought by the Ruffed Grouse. These groves afford them abundant food and security. The gentle coolness that prevails in them during the summer heat is agreeable and beneficial to these birds, and the closeness of their undergrowth in other spots moderates the cold blasts of winter. There this species breeds, and is at all times to be found.

Audubon goes on to note that ruffed grouse occurred everywhere in the US but most of all in the northeast.

There were always edge spaces - for example on hillsides where big trees lose their purchase and fall, or by water and in cane breaks as Audobon notes. I think the barrens her describes had to do with the geology of Kentucky and Tennesee but there were no doubt equivalent open spaces for various reasons in the Northeast. I can imagine that ruffed grouse did better when humans showed up and farmers increased edge spaces by clearing forests.

A question analogous to yours pertains to chimney swifts - how did those birds live before people put up chimneys?> The answer is "probably not in such large numbers as they did after the chimneys went up". So too the grouse and early farmers.

Chimneys and edge spaces are now both less common, as are swifts and grouse. There are people who manage the forests they own for hunting, and increase edge spaces because deer and game birds like grouse like those best.

I am not so much for hunting, but I would like to put up a large chimney because I love the swifts!

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