While spending time recently in the deer woods of Minnesota’s northwestern-most county, Kittson County, I encountered several ruffed grouse. This grouse-of-the-woods is the most recognizable species of grouse in the state. And one of the many remarkable things about them is just how adaptable and adept this fascinating bird really is.
The ruffed grouse is one of four species of native grouse in Minnesota. The other three are spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chicken. One other grouse-like bird, the non-native gray partridge, often called Hungarian partridge, inhabits grassland habitats throughout parts of western and northwestern Minnesota, too.
One of the more interesting aspects of ruffed grouse is how they’ve adapted to surviving our cold winters. Most year ‘round resident birds seek shelters of various kinds on the coldest days and nights, sometimes inside tree cavities, for example, but ruffed grouse managed to figure out eons ago that burrowing underneath snow is the way to keep warm and safe.
Burrows are created when the bird flies headfirst into the snow to escape frigid nights and inclement weather. Not only does this technique enable grouse to survive bitterly cold temperatures, it has the added benefit as a near-perfect hiding spot from predators such as bobcats, northern goshawks, and great horned owls.
Abundant and deep snowfall, while a detriment to wildlife like wild turkeys and deer, is actually a boon to ruffed grouse, especially if the snow is somewhat fluffy. The soft snow aids in the birds’ ability to easily burrow beneath and survive.
And depending on the ambient, outside temperature, the cozy inside of a ruffed grouse’s snow roost can be as much as 50 degrees warmer. Snow is a natural insulated blanket, and ruffed grouse know this.
Once the ruffed grouse has plunged into a bed of snow, it uses its wings and feet to extend its air-filled burrow, sometimes several feet long. Maybe you’ve encountered a vacated snow roost. If you have, you’ve probably noticed a pile of droppings inside the burrow where the bird had spent most of its time.
Sometimes in the spring after the snow has melted, one will observe these piles of grouse droppings upon the forest floor, which of course is evidence of a past snow roost now long gone.
I’ve enjoyed the experience a few times in my life of flushing a grouse out of its snow roost. The first time it happened, I was just a teenage boy looking for cottontails and grouse on a late December hunt.
Stopping to scan a promising spot in the woods, I spotted a curious looking object protruding out of the snow only a few feet in front of me. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at, until the snow erupted in a startling volcanic white cloud.
The curious object I had focused on was actually the head of the grouse. Like a periscope of a submarine, the bird had evidently heard my approach and poked its head out of its snow roost to have look. Apparently sensing danger, the grouse wasted no time in executing its bombshell escape. So surprised was I that I didn’t even think about shouldering my shotgun.
Another interesting feature of ruffed grouse is a physical trait that can be observed on their legs and toes. Feathers cover the legs of ruffed grouse, which provide warmth and insulation against the cold. Special fleshy projections on the sides of their toes that develop in late summer are adaptations of a different kind. Called pectinations, these comb-like appendages increase the surface area of their feet, thereby helping grouse to grip icy and snow-covered branches better, as well as enabling them to walk on top of the snow. Think of these projections as turning a ruffed grouse’s feet into mini-snowshoes!
Indeed, ruffed grouse are well-equipped both behaviorally and physically for any challenges that Mother Nature dishes out. Adaptable and resilient, ruffed grouse are true Minnesotans as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.