Choices for October hunters have changed

On Monday, Oct. 1, several small game seasons open, including turkey, grouse, cottontail rabbit and coyote. Squirrel season opened September 1 and remains open until February 29, 2008. As I write this, the temperatures are in the mid-80s, and I find it somewhat of a stretch just imaging what it would be like to be hunting on a day like today. It also makes me glad I don't live in Florida, Georgia, or those other Gulf states where autumn hunting often means sweat and mosquitoes. Oh yes, and snakes and gators.

If the weather prognosticators are correct, cooler, more seasonable weather is due in by the weekend, probably much to the delight of the hunters who plan to go forth on Monday. What they'll be hunting will vary with each hunter's personal taste, habits and habitat they most frequent. Decades ago, the primary small game in our area were cottontails and pheasant, with maybe grouse thrown in. Not so today. Habitat has changed drastically in the past few decades, thereby causing these three species to experience a major decline in numbers. Wild turkeys have become a primary target for many of today's hunters, and that is true in both the spring and the autumn.

Last spring was a good season for ground-nesting birds such as turkey and grouse. It was seasonably warm and rainy, but without the mid-spring week or so of cool, wet conditions that hit our area in 2004 and 2005, decimating freshly hatched poults. But even with the near-ideal nesting and poulting conditions this year, the abundance of predators such as coyote, fox and raccoon, along with egg-eaters such as skunk and opossum, took a toll on nests and poults. This accounts for the smaller-than-normal young turkeys and grouse that have been seen this summer, the result of hens that lost their first nest, nesting for a second time this year. Scouting reveals a good population of wild turkeys this year, and a better-than-average number of grouse in the limited habitat we have today. Turkeys are more adaptable in their habitat needs, while grouse are primarily birds that require an abundance of edge cover habitat, where emerging young growth borders on more mature growth such as evergreens. As our local grouse habitat has matured, much of it to forestland heights, the birds simply aren't there in the numbers they were in the 1950s and '60s, when habitat was nearly ideal for them.

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