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The Relationship Between Ruffed Grouse & Poplars In Winter

1-12-17-ruffed-grouse-aspens-049a2566Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).

Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.)  Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source:  Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)

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5 responses

  1. Ben Gaglioti

    Really interesting, Mary!

    Many woody plants invest heavily in secondary compounds that discourage herbivory especially in lower branches and / or when they are young. Such compounds make the plant taste bad or hard to digest. It’s thought that this evolved to combat ground-dwelling herbivores that could only reach the lower branches and leaves. Cutting down a tall yellow birch can bring a flurry of snowshoe hare browsing on the now-downed upper branches because the tree stopped investing in these compounds as they grew out of reach of herbivores. Do you know if poplars have similar allocation patterns for their anti-herbivory compounds that would cause the grouse to favor older trees whose upper buds would be out-of-reach to non-avian browsers?

    Thanks for your work.

    Ben Gaglioti

    January 13, 2017 at 9:30 am

    • Wow. I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon. I know that poplars do use chemical defenses against herbivores, but I do not know if they used them as you describe. Brilliant, if they do!

      January 13, 2017 at 11:12 am

  2. Peggy Timmerman

    In Wisconsin, landowners are encouraged to cut poplars and allow thickets of resprouts to grow up to provide habitat and food for grouse. So it is unclear to me if they prefer trees under or over 30 years old……..can you clarify?

    January 13, 2017 at 11:14 am

    • Poplars are pioneer plants that come in after the soil has been disturbed and there is plenty of light. They are also relatively short-lived. Without disturbances such as fire or logging, the poplars would disappear after maturing as they would die having had no suitable sunny spot for their seeds to grow in. If an area is burned or logged, poplar seeds germinate soon thereafter and the cycle continues. Hope this helps!

      January 13, 2017 at 11:46 am

  3. Ben

    I have a marsh from which thumping can be hear all Summer, into Spring and Fall. It happens to be surrounded by poplars and the strong relation between the 2 was unknown to me thus far. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. You are already familiar with the land as it is where you had found the Oven Bird’s nest 🙂 My wife & I today registered for a farm name and we decided to call it “the Drumming Bird Homestead” to honor the presence of the grouse which can hardly be missed.
    Thank you again!

    January 13, 2017 at 3:46 pm

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