BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Survival tactics of the ruffed grouse
Minnesota is home to four native grouse species—ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chicken. All four occupy distinct habitats with some overlap occurring, particularly between ruffed grouse and spruce grouse and between sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens. The former pair are considered “forest grouse” whereas the latter pair are considered “prairie grouse.”
The most widely recognized and observed species of the four birds is the ruffed grouse. Most abundant in the north half of the state, “ruffies” are so named for the black collar of feathers located on the birds’ necks. Males erect their ruffs and fan their tails during courtship displays, giving them an impressive and handsome appearance.
All grouse belong to a group of birds collectively referred to as “gallinaceous” birds, or those birds belonging to the avian order Galliformes. You’ll recognize many other closely related gallinaceous species, too. Among them are wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant, and northern bobwhite. And all share basic body types and certain behaviors. If you think of grouse and other gallinaceous species as chicken-like birds, you’d be right!
One of the most interesting behaviors that grouse share with one another has to do with how they thermoregulate their bodies. Put another way, in the manner they stay warm in the winter during the coldest days and nights and when stormy weather occurs. Grouse engage in a unique roosting behavior that takes full advantage of the insulative qualities that snow provides.
Somehow eons ago grouse figured out that burrowing into snow provided superior protection from inclement weather and predators. Indeed, inside the confines of a snow roost can be as much as 50 degrees warmer than the outside ambient temperature, not to mention the snow roost providing grouse complete protection from dangerous wind chill.
So, how do grouse make a snow roost? Do they use their wings to essentially dig a hole or burrow in the snow? Or do they use their feet to dig down? How about their beaks? Do they “peck” a hole in the snow?
The answer is none of the above.
Improbably—and one would think dangerously and maladaptively—grouse actually fly at relatively high speeds headfirst into snow banks or into blankets of snow that’s deep enough. Can you imagine flying headfirst into a snowbank!? Yet grouse routinely do this many times throughout Minnesota’s long, cold winters in order to survive. The snow has to be of the right consistency and deep enough; about ten inches of fluffy snow.
After a grouse launches itself from a nearby perch in a tree and dives headfirst into the snow, the bird doesn’t stop there. Once safely underneath the snow, a grouse will create about a four-inch burrow and sometimes will work themselves through the snow by as much as a few to ten feet before stopping and hollowing out a small and snug cavity where the grouse settles into.
Generally when a grouse utilizes a snow roost it’s for just an overnight stay, but there are times when an overnighter extends into the next day or longer when made necessary by storms. In these latter cases, grouse will have hopefully filled their crops with plenty of food, otherwise hunger can cause them to leave a snow roost earlier than what might be safe for the bird.
Grouse evacuate their snow roost in as dramatic a fashion as they created their roosts. If ever you’ve stumbled upon a roosting grouse while snowshoeing or skiing, you’ll likely never forget the ensuing explosion of feather and snow dust as the bird flushes. And if you examine the exit hole, you should also be able to locate the cavity where the grouse spent time in, which is evidenced by not only a grouse-size hollow, you’ll also observe a few droppings or a rather large pile depending on the amount of time the bird occupied its snow roost.
There’s so much more to grouse than their physical beauty, sporting quality, and as topnotch table fare. Behaviors, how they survive and negotiate their environments, are truly fascinating as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.