Wintering - Down in a hole (Ruffed Grouse)
When it comes to wintering habits, there aren’t many creatures that are built to handle winter as interestingly as the Ruffed Grouse. You wouldn’t think that when looking at these small chicken-like birds everywhere you turn, but they are masters of adapting to the elements of a harsh winter.
While some birds, like the Goldfinch, double the amount of feathers they have to prepare for the cold, and some mammals, like Snowshoe Hares and Weasels change their coats from brown to white each fall, Ruffed Grouse don’t have time for this nonsense. The physical adaption that the grouse makes are small, but incredibly useful. Each September, small growths resembling the teeth of a comb, called pectinations, start growing out of the side of their toes. These act as snowshoes during the deeper snowfall. The Ruffed grouse also grow additional feathers down their beaks as a way to ensure they are breathing warmer, filtered air.
While excellent at travelling on the snow, and well suited to deal with the cold, they don’t have any fancy camouflage at all. They’re also terrible at storing fat, which means that they need to eat their day’s food every day, or they’re in big trouble. Luckily, the grouse has a solution to this problem as well. They eat like Kobayashi! Each day, the grouse only has to spend about 20 minutes feeding, storing the food for the day in their crop, an expanded, muscular pouch near the gullet or throat. The favourite foods in our area are the buds of the Aspen (also known as poplar, popple, and many more names), followed by white and yellow birch and of course maple, but when Mother Nature decides to freeze these food sources with freezing rain, it can be devastating. “From my experience, the highest grouse mortality in winter comes from the inability to feed on buds if freezing rain remains the trees for more than four days” says John Lockerbie, President and CEO of Ruffed Grouse Society of Canada.
Most amazingly of all, in my opinion anyway, is how the grouse spends much of the winter. On years like this where there is little snow on the ground, or the snow is frozen solid due to rain fall, the Ruffed Grouse will find thick conifer stands to roost in. However when the snow is a foot or more deep, and soft, that’s when things get interesting. With conditions like that, the Grouse will most likely spend its time buried in the snow, in a tunnel they create by slamming themselves into the snow from high up in a tree. These tunnels can be 10 feet or more deep, and because snow is an excellent insulator, the temperature in these tunnels has been reported to often warm to above freezing, and never fall below -7 Celsius (20 degrees Fahrenheit), even when it is much colder outside. This allows them to use less energy to keep warm, which means less of a food requirement each day. They may only venture out a few times a day to grab a quick meal and return.
As you can probably see, each of these incredible adaptations to the cold also has a downside. They stick out like a sore thumb, and absolutely must get their daily food requirements each morning and night. This opens them up to major predation. Like the hare, a grouse’s best winter for survival is one when there is loads of soft, fluffy snow on the ground. In a year with very little snow, or the even worse one where the snow has crusted over with ice, Ruffed Grouse populations can be decimated. On more than one occasion, I have come across a dead grouse laying on top of the snow. My theory has always been that these unfortunate birds attempted to dive into the snow, only to be greeted by a hard crust, like a sparrow against a pane of glass.
It’s been estimated that up to 75% of a Ruffed Grouse population can be wiped out during a single bad winter. Luckily, the Ruffed Grouse also has an answer to these terrible (for them) winters. The grouse has a very high fecundity, which is to say that it has the ability to produce very many young, very quickly. In some areas of the Ruffed Grouse range, this can lead to a summer time population 4 to 5 times as high as they had in the Spring. Even when they don’t excel at surviving winter, they excel and recovering from it!
The next time you’re out in the woods, struggling through feet of snow, just keep your eyes peeled, because at any moment you could be greeted by an explosion of snow as that startled grouse explodes from its tunnel. Many a skiers and snowshoers have met a similar fate as they unknowingly snuck up on a partridge deep in their winter home.
For more information on the Ruffed Grouse, be sure to check out your local chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. The members of this organization are focused on scientific conservation and management efforts to ensure the future of the species. There are chapters all across North America and they’re really doing some great things and whose benefits extend far beyond the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse. Almost all of the funds raised by RGS Canada go directly to serve their mandate.
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