Ruffed Grouse

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We western Canadians know winter, and few of us really like it. This goes for wild animals and birds, too. Many local birds just pack up and leave for warmer climates for the winter, but one of our favourite game birds, the ruffed grouse, does not. The range of this species includes all of western Canada, the southern Yukon and into central Alaska. So, within a range like that, a bird that doesn’t migrate south is going to know winter and better be prepared for snow and cold. Fortunately, ruffed grouse are so prepared, with several key adaptations to handle winter.

The first key for a grouse to survive winter is to spend the previous summer in good habitat and eat a lot. Good habitat for ruffed grouse includes a mix of conifer and deciduous trees and shrubs, so that there is an ample supply of seeds, shoots, buds and other soft vegetation. In the spring, newly hatched grouse chicks also feast on insects for the extra protein, but adult birds are more likely to be vegetarian. Feeding well all summer means that these birds will have fat reserves to help carry them through winter. They feed in winter too, but the food selection is small and the quality is reduced. Buds from willows, birch and aspen are the mainstay of winter forage.

Another key to winter survival is to conserve body heat. This is a job for the grouse’s feathers. To keep their legs warm, these birds grow extra feathers down to their toes and to reduce the difference in air temperature between the inside and outside of their body when breathing, they grow nostril feathers. Down feathers act as thermal underwear and in cold weather, grouse fluff up their body and wing feathers until they resemble feathered bowling balls. The captured air pockets provide insulation. Then, in really cold weather, they may dive and burrow into deep snow and thus survive a frigid night in a cozy snow cave or temporary igloo.

But they can’t stay buried in a snow cave forever. Being active all winter means these birds need to get around on the snow. The key to doing so are little scaly projections called pectinations that grow on both sides of each toe, which act like mini snowshoes.

Surviving in a frozen landscape also means having a limited need for water. These grouse get much of fluid they need from the moisture contained in food.

So, fortunately for us sportsmen, ruffed grouse, with several key adaptations, are well prepared to survive a western Canadian winter and ready to begin a new family come spring.

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