To woodland bird hunters in West Virginia, three species stand above all others: the wild turkey, the ruffed grouse and the woodcock.
Hunting seasons for all three begin on Oct. 12. Mike Peters, game bird biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources, expects lower harvests in all of them.
Success during the Mountain State’s fall turkey season usually hinges on the number of naïve 5-month-old turkeys running about. Peters said the supply of “jakes” and “jennies” is lower this fall.
“This summer’s brood count came in 32 percent below the 5-year average,” he added. “Not only were there fewer broods, there were fewer poults per hen.”
From 2018 to the present, the number of turkey broods fell 47 percent.
“That sounds really bad, but folks should keep in mind that [2018 broods] were 96 percent above [2017’s],” Peters said. “So the [47-percent] drop isn’t quite as bad as it appears. We’re more or less back to where we were two years ago.”
Poor brood counts usually coincide with cold, wet conditions that causes young poults to die from exposure. Peters said that didn’t appear to be the case this year.
“Our brood count trends have been puzzling for the last couple of years,” he said. “Last year when it was so wet, we thought production would be down and it went up. This year it was drier, and the count went down. Maybe we had rain at exactly the wrong time.”
Every region in the Mountain State had poorer reproduction this year, but the eastern and western regions appear to have been hardest-hit. Peters said brood counts in those areas fell 58 percent.
Not surprisingly, Peters suspects this fall’s turkey kill will come in lower than last year’s count of 1,215 birds.
“We know brood production influences fall harvest,” he said. “So we think this year’s harvest may be below last year’s.”
He added, however, that his prediction isn’t cast in concrete.
“The fall harvest depends more on hunter participation than anything,” he said. “The more hunters, the higher the harvest. A good hunter turnout could make the season turn out better than expected.”
As has been the case for the past several years, hunters in all 55 West Virginia counties will get at least a one-week fall season. Seventeen counties will get a two-week season, and 14 will get a four-week season.
The number of two-week counties hinges on the number of birds killed during the spring season. Counties that produced at least 0.75 gobblers per square mile are added to the two-week list.
“The spring harvest was down by about 1,000 birds this year,” Peters said. “Two of the counties that had two-week seasons last year fell below the 0.75 threshold this year. They’ll have one-week seasons this fall.”
The most successful hunters will be those who can determine where turkeys are congregating and feeding. Soft mast appears to be abundant this fall, and Peters said hunters who know where grapevines and cherry trees are located should find turkeys nearby.
“As far as overall regions are concerned, I’d probably concentrate on areas of the state that didn’t suffer big brood-count declines,” he added. “The mountain counties and the southern counties would fall into that category.”
“Nothing has changed for the better.”
Those certainly aren’t words West Virginia’s grouse hunters want to hear, but there they are. Another year has passed, and the outlook for the state’s favorite upland game bird hasn’t improved one iota.
In fact, things have gotten worse. Peters said this year’s grouse brood count went from poor to even poorer.
“I got about half the number of broods I got in 2018, and 2018 was dismal,” he added. “The only positive was that the people who did see broods saw nice-sized ones. One guy saw a brood that had nine poults in it.
“Overall, though, brood observations were down, and that’s not a good indication.”
It’s yet another grim chapter in a saga that’s gone on since the 1980s.
“The end of good grouse hunting started more than 30 years ago, when a lot of old abandoned family farms finished reverting to forest,” Peters explained. “Grouse need young forest habitat, and they had it when those farms were just starting to revert. There’s very little young forest out there now. The state is 80 percent forested now, and 90 percent of those forests have reached the mature stage.”
Not much of that timber is being cut nowadays, and Peters said that’s a problem.
“Last year, only 400 acres were timbered on the [921,125-acre] Monongahela National Forest,” he added. “About 2,000 acres were timbered on state-owned wildlife management areas. That’s not going to get the job done for grouse.”
The gradual loss of young-forest habitat put grouse into a steady decline between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, when populations suddenly fell off a cliff. Researchers in Pennsylvania believe the plunge coincided with a region-wide outbreak of West Nile Virus.
Those same researchers observed that the lethal effects of WNV on grouse seem to be less pronounced in areas where the birds have plenty of young-forest habitat. Peters believes things won’t improve in West Virginia until people start cutting more trees.
“We can’t do anything to stop West Nile Virus, but we’ve known for 30 years we can increase grouse populations by cutting trees,” he said. “We just haven’t done it.”
Grouse can still be found throughout most of the state, but seldom in concentrations sufficient for good hunting. Peters said if he were to recommend any particular area, it would be the eastern mountains.
“Any of the mountain counties should provide a better opportunity than just about anywhere in the rest of the state,” he said. “That said, my son and I were recently scouting deer on the Pedlar Wildlife Management Area [in Monongalia County], and we flushed a grouse. So there are grouse outside the mountain counties.
“I’m starting to wonder if grouse hunters aren’t starting to become like deer hunters were in the 1970s and 1980s, when everyone went to deer camps up in the mountains because it didn’t occur to them that deer might be elsewhere.”
This year’s edition of the grouse season is scheduled for Oct. 12-Feb. 29. Hunters may take up to four birds a day.
Upland bird hunters who’ve grown weary of trying to find grouse might want to switch their efforts to woodcock, the season for which also will begin on Oct. 12.
Woodcock numbers have also been falling throughout the species’ range, but Peters said the decline has been slow and gradual.
“This year’s singing-ground surveys [of mating woodcock] were slightly below 2018 levels, but that’s nothing to worry about,” he explained. “There should be no major differences in the number of birds hunters see this year than the number they saw last year.”
Woodcock migrate south for the winter, so the birds hunters encounter in West Virginia are usually on the move. Peters said the best places to find them are areas with soft, moist soils.
“Canaan Valley is usually a good woodcock-hunting area, and so are the counties along the Ohio River,” he added. “It will be interesting to see if the drought conditions we’ve had in late summer and early fall will have any effect. Hunters who are able to find some moist ground might enjoy better hunting.”
Biologists in other states are in the middle of a woodcock-research project, so hunters might end up shooting birds that are banded or have tiny GPS transmitters attached to them.
“Sometimes that freaks people out,” Peters said. “There’s nothing wrong with shooting a transmitter bird. Hunters who do should report it, because it will help with the research. But there’s nothing illegal about it.”
The bag limit for woodcock is three birds a day. The season will run through Nov. 23, with a brief extension Dec. 2-3.