They Are Where They Eat : Quaking Aspen


Aspen Trees in CO. Photo from WikiPedia
When it comes to grouse hunting in the northwoods there are a few things that we need to look for to find good grouse numbers. Mainly food. Food for grouse can mean so many things but a huge portion of a Grouse's diet consists of Aspen buds. In my neck of the woods Aspen is the key food source and good populations of young Aspen means good populations of grouse.
Unfortunately, Aspen is one of the trees often confused with others and is frequently misidentified. Aspen belong to the Populous genus which includes other trees we know such as cottonwoods, and poplars. Much to the surprise of many, this group does not include Birch trees which belong to the genus Betula. Not that any of us need to know this. What you should know is how to identify them.

Populous tremuloides AKA the Quaking Aspen
The main species you are likely to encounter in the northeast is Populous tremuloides. This is a tree known by many names to include Quaking Aspen, Trembling Aspen, American Aspen, Golden Aspen, White Poplar, and in my neck of the woods, Popple. If you have heard the tree called Popple, know that a lot of old timers refer to younger Aspen trees as Popple.

Leaves of the Quaking Aspen
Aspen trees are generally tall when mature. Usually around 70-80 feet and often do not have many branches in the lower two thirds. They are characterised by smooth white or gray trunks with black scarring. This is how many people confuse them with Birch trees. Their leaves are fairly round with small teeth around the perimeter. However, young Aspen trees have larger leaves although they do maintain the same shape. The leaves generally turn yellow or gold in the fall but can sometimes turn red. Aspen trees do produce fruit known as Catkins although this is not how they propagate. Aspen trees are colonial and all trees within the same colony share a single root system. 

Aspen Catkins
Aspen Catkins as buds

Aspen trees are considered a pioneer species and are often the first trees to take hold over an area recently cut or burned. Their bark is white to gray and is generally smooth with no flaking which is common in Birch trees. They are marked with black scars where the tree naturally self prunes as it grows. Birch trees often have horizontal lines or "lenticels" which are very visible and obvious, where as Aspen trees generally only have black scarring and knots.

Here is the catch when it comes to Aspen as food....It is widely speculated that grouse feed most heavily on Aspen catkins when the ground is covered in snow, that is, when they don't have access to greens and insects. Greens and insects make up the bulk of their food source during spring and summer months. This is a subject of much debate as we know that their diet consists of a wide range of food, but it is also readily accepted that in their northern range, Aspen is the most important food item and colonies of Aspen are often at the heart of their home territory.

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