North Words: Gathering food is a full time job for woodland creatures
Often as it is, when we watch wildlife going about their business it's the eating business that we observe them doing: squirrels cracking acorn shells, deer grazing on hay fields, or ducks dabbling in the wetlands. All creatures great and small spend a large part of their daily or nightly routine eating or gathering food. It's a fulltime job to be sure.
I recall the time several autumns ago while hunting deer one cold November morning when I watched a young ruffed grouse for an hour as he foraged on the forest floor and within low-lying shrubs. The grouse was methodical as it went about filling it's crop, leaving basically no leaf unturned and no hazel bush ignored. He was on a mission to fill his crop, and it didn't seem to matter to him that I was in plain sight.
It came as a surprise to me that the bird appeared somewhat unaware of its immediate surroundings. Not once was I able to detect the grouse demonstrating the alertness I've come to expect from these typically wary birds. He behaved almost like a barnyard domestic chicken. I also wondered if it would've been easy for a predator, whether a fisher or goshawk, to have captured the young bird for dinner.
In any event, the ruffed grouse shuffled about noisily in the leaves searching for greens and perhaps an insect or two. I watched in pleasure as the bird picked and pecked and consumed mouthfuls of tiny green leaves of some unidentifiable herbaceous plant. But what the gallinaceous gentleman was most interested in were hazel buds -- and lots of'em.
Sometimes with utmost grace and at other times with curious awkwardness, I observed, in several instances, the grouse stalk a reachable-from-the-ground hazel bud and leap unexpectedly high to garner it, while in other occurrences see him nearly topple to the ground after misjudging the stoutness of a particularly delectable limb replete with buds for the taking -- or so he thought.
But persistence generally pays off for everyone, even for a grouse. During the time I was able to watch the bird's entire, uninterrupted breakfast routine, I was also treated to what a grouse sometimes does after its crop is completely full: he takes a nap. For between five and ten minutes my little avian buddy slept it off until perhaps part of his foodstuffs had passed into his gizzard. With his feathers all puffed out to ward off the frosty cold and his eyes closed as he roosted on a branch near to the ground, he looked as content as a grouse could be.
Another bird that I've had the fortune to observe frequently over the years is the gray jay. The species is such an interesting bird, especially to watch him or her searching, gathering, caching, and eating food. And with the gray jay, nearly any food will do.
An unusually tame-acting wild bird, the gray jay, for whatever reason, calmly glides underneath the forest canopy, often alighting on nearby perches to gaze curiously at human onlookers. Right before our eyes the gray jay will sometimes snatch food from our hands or, at the very least, give us a grand, up-close view of them. So different they are behaviorally from their fidgety blue jay relatives.
Unique among jays, the gray jay possesses special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to glue foodstuffs together. This enables the bird to clump and stick bonded morsels into and onto hiding spots throughout the forest. During harsh winters the bird can then return to its many caches and feast on its sticky, globular creations.
A friend of mine who spends a lot time in the Northwoods has come to regard gray jays as personal friends of his during his many outdoor adventures. My friend once observed a gray jay one afternoon from the comfort of his deer stand gather bits of fat from the entrails of a recently harvested deer. The bird, apparently oblivious of his being in the nearby tree stand, landed with a thud onto the wooden platform of the stand only inches from his boots.
He watched in amazement as the gray jay emptied his mouthful of deer fat onto the platform, apply the sticky, aforementioned mucous-like substance onto the wad of fat, and then wedge the gob into a space between a couple of boards. The gray jay examined for a second his cache and flew to an adjacent perch.
My friend, who was already astonished by the jay's bold act, then observed the bird fly back to the platform -- as if having just realized that his cache's location was undoubtedly known -- and take it. The jay flew off with his ball of sticky deer fat to evidently secure it somewhere more private.
Although I've only illustrated a couple of examples of a couple of birds feeding in a couple of different ways, right now, throughout the Northland, many more of our feathered friends are busily feeding in a multitude of ways on a multitude of foodstuffs. And in so doing, each and every one of them will provide plenty of entertainment and education for us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)