The Ruffed Grouse. (Photo by Tammy McCadden)

Winter Survivors – Ruffed Grouse


Posted on Thursday January 30, 2020

As we humans continue to deal with slippery roads, winter field conditions for training, and ever growing piles of snow at the ends of our driveways, our local wildlife proceed with their daily winter struggles as well – often completely unnoticed by their human neighbours.

One of the best winter-equipped and well-adapted of our local birds is the Ruffed Grouse. Often called “Partridge”, the Ruffed Grouse undergoes a number of physical changes in its bag of tricks for winter survival. In the fall its diet changes from ground vegetation (which will be covered with snow in winter) to the buds and catkins of deciduous trees like birch and poplar and shrubs like alder and willow. Generally, these food sources are above snow level, and also provide a chance to soak up the sun on clear days.

In addition to changing food sources, the Ruffed Grouse grows additional body feathers following the summer moult, which improves its insulation from the cold temperatures to come (the equivalent of putting on long underwear). It will also grow feathers around and over its nostrils to trap the air and warm it before breathing – not unlike wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth on a cold day. They even grow additional feathers down the normally bare portion of their legs, thus limiting exposure to the elements. On their feet they grow scale-like projections that increase the surface area of the foot making ground travel over the snow substantially easier.

The best winter adaptation that the Ruffed Grouse has however, is that on cold nights when fluffy snow is abundant, it will dive into the snowbank where it will use its feet and wings to create a cavern or tunnel. Here, it can sleep in snow insulated comfort conserving the energy from its daytime dining. In the morning, it will burst from its snow roost to begin feeding once again. If you are snowshoeing or cross country skiing near a snow roost, an exiting Grouse can deliver quite the surprise.

Ruffed Grouse can be seen foraging on buds near dawn and dusk in local woodlands and often even in treed areas of the Garrison. Watch for them the next time you are headed out for a morning coffee!