Are Turkeys Impacting Ruffed Grouse?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions during my tenure as a regional biologist. For those of us who have sought both of these game birds, the answer appears quite easy. Wild turkeys prefer habitats that are more mature and open than the dense forest cover essential to ruffed grouse. As we have often relayed, data clearly show that young-forest habitat has declined across much of the range of ruffed grouse while increases are occurring in mature forest habitat. But there may be more to it than that. Turkeys, for instance, are known to eat a variety of foods including snakes and frogs. Could they eat a grouse chick? Sure, but how often are they available? Young grouse can fly proficiently by the time they are three weeks old. Often when threatened, a brood will flush in all directions and then find cover and hide. This makes them almost impossible for any predator, especially a turkey with its poor sense of smell, to locate.
It is doubtful that these species compete with each other for breeding sites. Drumming male grouse are quite sedentary, occupying a log surrounded by dense cover, while gobblers set up strutting zones in open areas and travel quite frequently. Nesting sites for each species are not very specific with both species using middle-aged or mature stands for nesting. Hens of both species are quite secretive when nesting and try to bring as little attention as possible to the nest site.
A recently completed study by Dr. Bill Palmer, a Florida game bird researcher, also gives us insight into the question of turkeys eating young birds or destroying nests. Dr. Palmer followed the fate of more than 400 quail nests using micro-video cameras and radio-tagged hens to monitor broods. The study area had very high turkey populations of 30 to 60 turkeys per square mile. Not once during the study did the researchers record a turkey destroying a quail nest or record a turkey eating or killing a chick.
Both grouse and turkeys are primarily generalists when it comes to feed, having few limitations throughout most of the year. Winter is probably the most stressful period for both species, with the turkey feeding mostly on acorns and waste grains while ruffed grouse feed on the dormant buds of trees and shrubs. The latter are usually not available to the turkey due to the bird’s large body mass, which would require very stout limbs for support. Infrequent observations have been reported, however, of turkeys “budding” just like their grouse cousins.
In some areas of the southern portion of the range of the ruffed grouse, though, bud-producing trees and shrubs are uncommon. This forces the grouse to forage on the ground in direct competition with other ground-feeders, including turkeys, for a limited food supply. Nevertheless, this type of competition would be expected to be very localized and should not affect regional ruffed grouse populations.
Dave Neu, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, states “Ruffed grouse and wild turkey are two species that have evolved together for thousands of years and their habitats slightly overlap. There is no documented evidence that either species directly impacts populations of the other.”
From a scientific basis, there is little evidence that the wild turkey is directly leading to declines in ruffed grouse populations. Any impact caused to ruffed grouse populations by turkeys is insignificant compared to the declines in young-forest habitats and the long line of tru predators across the range of the ruffed grouse.
(Gary Zimmer is a regional forest wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society.)