Theory suggests habitats should be chosen according to their relative evolutionary benefits and costs. It has been hypothesized that aspen (Populus spp.) forests provide optimal habitat for Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus). We used the low phase of a grouse population's cycle to assess the prediction that grouse should occupy aspen and avoid other forest types at low population density because of the presumptive fitness benefits of aspen. On the basis of our observations, we predict how the Ruffed Grouse population will increase in different forest types during the next cycle. In conifer (Pinus spp., Abies balsamea, Picea spp.)-dominated and mixed aspen—conifer landscapes, grouse densities were highest where forest types were evenly distributed. Within these landscapes, male Ruffed Grouse selected young aspen stands that were large and round or square. Although Ruffed Grouse selected young aspen stands strongly, contrary to prediction, they also used other forest types even when young aspen stands remained unoccupied. The relative densities of Ruffed Grouse in aspen and conifer forests indicated that the aspen forest's carrying capacities for grouse was higher than the conifer forest's at least during the low and declining phases of the grouse's cycle. On the basis of our observations, we predict that Ruffed Grouse populations in aspen-dominated landscapes will have higher population densities and fluctuate more than will populations in conifer-dominated landscapes. We suggest that studies of avian habitat selection would benefit from knowledge about the relative densities among habitats at differing population sizes because this information could provide insight into the role of habitat in regulating populations and clarify inferences from studies about habitat quality for birds.
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Vol. 111 • No. 2