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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Right at home in the snow

I remember well the day I walked into a snow-filled woodland without sinking up to my knees or deeper. I was just a young farm boy plodding through knee-deep snow wearing snowshoes on my oversized Sorel pack boots bound tightly by the snowshoes' ...

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I remember well the day I walked into a snow-filled woodland without sinking up to my knees or deeper. I was just a young farm boy plodding through knee-deep snow wearing snowshoes on my oversized Sorel pack boots bound tightly by the snowshoes' old leather bindings. The snowshoes were of the Alaskan type - exceedingly long, too long really, narrow and cumbersome, especially for a young boy with too short of legs. Related content At one point on my excursion I stopped to rest. I was out of breath, overheated and was probably wondering why I thought I was having fun. While leaning against an old bur oak tree I saw something sticking out of a snowdrift next to a nearby tree that caught my attention. It was a curious looking object, and though scarcely 10 feet away, I couldn't identify it. And whatever it was, it moved. It even seemed to blink. Unable to identify it, I decided to step a little closer. I think I strode two clumsy steps forward when all of a sudden the snow exploded into a cloud of powder. Aside from being startled out of my wits and nearly falling backward in the snow, I watched as a gray-colored feathered rocket emerged from the snowdrift and disappear into the woodland - dodging and weaving through the woods in full flight. I had just experienced another first. Before that startling and educational moment, I had heard or read somewhere that ruffed grouse do indeed spend a great deal of time during the winter nestled snug and warm inside "snow roosts." Just is, I had never observed the evidence. But on that day I received the finest of schooling by a trickster of a bird that not only taught me that ruffed grouse burrow into the snow, but also imparted a lesson in survival tactics designed to surprise and escape would-be predators. Minnesota's resident wildlife, those species of wildlife that live here throughout all four seasons, have evolved to handle most anything Mother Nature can dish out. The adaptable ruffed grouse actually fares best when snow is deep enough and is of the right consistency for burrowing into. These amazing birds are well known for their headfirst dives into soft snow to escape cold winter days and nights. A snow-roost is nothing more than a small burrow that a grouse creates after the bird has either crash-landed into the snow or forces its body into soft snow by essentially burrowing into it. For any grouse to accomplish this, the condition of the snow has to be just right. At least seven or more inches of fluffy snow are required for a ruffed grouse to create a snow-roost. Ruffed grouse are as completely comfortable and protected inside their snow caves. Not only is the bird less visible to predators, snow roosting guards against bitter cold temperatures, wind, blizzards, and the like. Snow is ideal insulation that helps grouse conserve valuable energy throughout the long winter months. Believe it or not, a snow roost can actually be 50 degrees warmer than the ambient outside air temperature! When it's time to feed, or if a grouse senses the approach of a predator, they stick their head out of the snow and take a peak. If the coast is clear, or danger is eminent, the grouse immediately vacates his roost (just as I learned all those years ago). Ruffed grouse have also evolved special feet that help them walk on top of the snow-little comb-like projections that grow laterally along the sides of their toes act as natural snowshoes for better support on the snow and to grip ice-covered branches while they forage on the buds. Some species of mammals have evolved the ability to turn a different color during the winter months. Snowshoe hares and weasels turn snow white, except for the tips of the hares' ears and the tips of the weasels' tails, which are black. The pelage of both hare and weasel changes to brown by summertime that are as cryptic in the summer with brown coats as during the wintertime with white coats. The snowshoe hare also grows dense fur on the pads of their front feet and oversized back feet. Not only does the additional fur provide great insulation against the cold, the extra fur also enhances a hare's mobility in the snow-again, acting just like snowshoes! Weasels are tiny carnivores that also turns snow white in color, but interestingly, only weasels, which belong to a large family of other weasel-like mammals (otter, fisher, pine marten, mink), is the only species of the family that turns white. It could be that this evolved because of the weasels' very small size. Such tiny dimensions makes this animal vulnerable to predators like owls, foxes, coyotes, wolves, and even members of its own family such as mink, fisher, and pine marten. And since this animal makes a living as a predator itself, being able to blend into its environment-along with its tubular body design and quickness-equips the weasel with the means necessary to seek out and capture prey of mice, moles, and shrews underneath snow or inside cavities in trees and logs while remaining almost invisible to both predator and prey alike. As anyone who's ever followed the tracks of a weasel knows, nothing goes unnoticed by weasels. Their tiny tracks and telltale bounding gait across the snow will lead you to dozens of interesting discoveries. Snow, you soon learn, is no impediment to the weasel. In fact, like the grouse, snow is used to the animal's benefit. The weasel knows that shrews, moles, white-footed mice, and voles stay active throughout the winter in underground systems of tunnels and within woody debris hidden below blankets of snow. All the weasel does is burrow to where its prey lives and begins hunting. Through many different adaptations and mechanisms, resident wildlife have found multiple ways to adapt and survive the hardships of cold and snow. Whether it's a grouse spending the entire day or night inside a snow cavity, or a hare hiding underneath a balsam bough completely hidden by it and the surrounding snow, or an invisible weasel slinking along the top of a snowdrift and suddenly disappear below it, winter's challenges are met headlong by Minnesota's wintertime wildlife as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.I remember well the day I walked into a snow-filled woodland without sinking up to my knees or deeper. I was just a young farm boy plodding through knee-deep snow wearing snowshoes on my oversized Sorel pack boots bound tightly by the snowshoes' old leather bindings. The snowshoes were of the Alaskan type - exceedingly long, too long really, narrow and cumbersome, especially for a young boy with too short of legs. Related content At one point on my excursion I stopped to rest. I was out of breath, overheated and was probably wondering why I thought I was having fun. While leaning against an old bur oak tree I saw something sticking out of a snowdrift next to a nearby tree that caught my attention. It was a curious looking object, and though scarcely 10 feet away, I couldn't identify it. And whatever it was, it moved. It even seemed to blink.Unable to identify it, I decided to step a little closer. I think I strode two clumsy steps forward when all of a sudden the snow exploded into a cloud of powder. Aside from being startled out of my wits and nearly falling backward in the snow, I watched as a gray-colored feathered rocket emerged from the snowdrift and disappear into the woodland - dodging and weaving through the woods in full flight.I had just experienced another first. Before that startling and educational moment, I had heard or read somewhere that ruffed grouse do indeed spend a great deal of time during the winter nestled snug and warm inside "snow roosts." Just is, I had never observed the evidence. But on that day I received the finest of schooling by a trickster of a bird that not only taught me that ruffed grouse burrow into the snow, but also imparted a lesson in survival tactics designed to surprise and escape would-be predators.Minnesota's resident wildlife, those species of wildlife that live here throughout all four seasons, have evolved to handle most anything Mother Nature can dish out. The adaptable ruffed grouse actually fares best when snow is deep enough and is of the right consistency for burrowing into. These amazing birds are well known for their headfirst dives into soft snow to escape cold winter days and nights.A snow-roost is nothing more than a small burrow that a grouse creates after the bird has either crash-landed into the snow or forces its body into soft snow by essentially burrowing into it. For any grouse to accomplish this, the condition of the snow has to be just right. At least seven or more inches of fluffy snow are required for a ruffed grouse to create a snow-roost.Ruffed grouse are as completely comfortable and protected inside their snow caves. Not only is the bird less visible to predators, snow roosting guards against bitter cold temperatures, wind, blizzards, and the like. Snow is ideal insulation that helps grouse conserve valuable energy throughout the long winter months. Believe it or not, a snow roost can actually be 50 degrees warmer than the ambient outside air temperature!When it's time to feed, or if a grouse senses the approach of a predator, they stick their head out of the snow and take a peak. If the coast is clear, or danger is eminent, the grouse immediately vacates his roost (just as I learned all those years ago). Ruffed grouse have also evolved special feet that help them walk on top of the snow-little comb-like projections that grow laterally along the sides of their toes act as natural snowshoes for better support on the snow and to grip ice-covered branches while they forage on the buds.Some species of mammals have evolved the ability to turn a different color during the winter months. Snowshoe hares and weasels turn snow white, except for the tips of the hares' ears and the tips of the weasels' tails, which are black. The pelage of both hare and weasel changes to brown by summertime that are as cryptic in the summer with brown coats as during the wintertime with white coats.The snowshoe hare also grows dense fur on the pads of their front feet and oversized back feet. Not only does the additional fur provide great insulation against the cold, the extra fur also enhances a hare's mobility in the snow-again, acting just like snowshoes!Weasels are tiny carnivores that also turns snow white in color, but interestingly, only weasels, which belong to a large family of other weasel-like mammals (otter, fisher, pine marten, mink), is the only species of the family that turns white.It could be that this evolved because of the weasels' very small size. Such tiny dimensions makes this animal vulnerable to predators like owls, foxes, coyotes, wolves, and even members of its own family such as mink, fisher, and pine marten. And since this animal makes a living as a predator itself, being able to blend into its environment-along with its tubular body design and quickness-equips the weasel with the means necessary to seek out and capture prey of mice, moles, and shrews underneath snow or inside cavities in trees and logs while remaining almost invisible to both predator and prey alike.As anyone who's ever followed the tracks of a weasel knows, nothing goes unnoticed by weasels. Their tiny tracks and telltale bounding gait across the snow will lead you to dozens of interesting discoveries. Snow, you soon learn, is no impediment to the weasel. In fact, like the grouse, snow is used to the animal's benefit. The weasel knows that shrews, moles, white-footed mice, and voles stay active throughout the winter in underground systems of tunnels and within woody debris hidden below blankets of snow. All the weasel does is burrow to where its prey lives and begins hunting.Through many different adaptations and mechanisms, resident wildlife have found multiple ways to adapt and survive the hardships of cold and snow. Whether it's a grouse spending the entire day or night inside a snow cavity, or a hare hiding underneath a balsam bough completely hidden by it and the surrounding snow, or an invisible weasel slinking along the top of a snowdrift and suddenly disappear below it, winter's challenges are met headlong by Minnesota's wintertime wildlife as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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