(Media release from University of Georgia Media Relations, written by Kristen Morales):

A new project at the University of Georgia is investigating the declining ruffed grouse population in North Georgia, and scientists need help from outdoor enthusiasts.

Researchers at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are collecting as many ruffed grouse genetic samples as they can find to get a better understanding of landscape connectivity across the Georgia mountains. The birds are native to North Georgia, but fewer sightings in recent years have made population estimates difficult.

Now a new five-year study will log DNA from samples and help researchers find ways to help the birds.

“We believe their populations have been declining for some time now, and so we’re looking to see how much these grouse are moving around the landscape and how connected they are,” said Clay Delancey, research scientist for the project. “So, that’s where the genetic component comes in. We’re collecting DNA from these grouse to analyze and see how isolated they’re becoming in the mountain ranges.”

In the spring, Warnell researchers will fan out across the mountains and look for grouse. But until then, they are asking for residents to help in the search. If someone is planning to head out to the forest, whether it’s for a hunt or for a day on the trails, Delancey asks them to contact him for a sampling kit. He’ll send them an envelope containing all the materials necessary to collect samples, whether it’s feathers or tissue from a deceased bird, or fecal matter from a “drumming log.”

Because grouse have become so scarce, these logs can help provide crucial samples when no birds can be seen.

“The males display for the females on top of a fallen log,” said Delancey. When the birds drum, they beat their wings, starting slow and gaining in speed to create a throbbing sound similar to a muffled lawn mower. “And they typically use the same logs over and over again, so there can get to be a pile of fecal matter on the log.”

In recent years, he said, hunters have noted fewer and fewer ruffed grouse during hunting season. Habitat loss is a major source of the decline—grouse prefer densely packed, young forests. But this type of landscape is difficult to find across the Georgia mountains.

“So, if it’s a hunter who harvests a bird or if someone finds a roadkill grouse, we’re hoping to get some samples,” Delancey said. Members of the public can either send the samples back to UGA or Delancey can pick them up. “Our grouse surveys are pretty much throughout North Georgia, so we want samples from all different parts, if we can.”

To receive a sample kit, email Delancey at [email protected] or visit the DNR’s website for details on what samples need to be collected.