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A “Ruffed” Winter

Emma O.

This week’s Blog Post was written by Emma O., a Drummers Alumni! She writes all about the Ruffed Grouse, and the many interesting ways they are able to survive Pennsylvania winters.

In Pennsylvania, winter can be a rather difficult time of year for residents who do not enjoy cold weather. The months of January, February, and March are frigid; the biting air is so sharp that it could crack like an icicle! Consequently, an ideal winter for most sounds like cozying up in a fuzzy blanket by the fire. However, Pennsylvania wildlife–especially the Ruffed Grouse–has other ideas.

A grouse enjoying the snowy weather!

The Ruffed Grouse has many excellent adaptations that make it the ideal animal to survive a harsh winter, which is why the majority of the species live in North American areas that are usually covered in snow for around five months. These adaptations can be grouped into a few different categories, like physical adaptations, different eating habits, and new roosting spots.

Physically, the Ruffed Grouse develops many new characteristics during the winter that aid their survival. For example, Grouse grow pectinations around their toes, which are essentially new bits of skin that increase the surface area of their feet. This adaptation allows them to more easily walk on snow or grip icy tree branches. Additionally, the Ruffed Grouse grows new feathers around its nose and legs. The first lets the bird breathe the cold air more easily, and the latter simply helps them to stay warmer.

The first snow of the winter (around mid-November!) in South Central Pennsylvania.

Ruffed Grouse must also change their eating habits in winter in order to survive the freezing months. So, they switch from eating leafy greens to mostly tree buds. The buds of the trembling aspen are most attractive to grouse, but they also enjoy willow, birches, ironwoods, and more. Highbush cranberry is another option for the Ruffed Grouse, since the berries may remain during the winter time. The Ruffed Grouse’s digestive system, complete with a crop and gizzard, aids with digestion.

One interesting fact about grouse during the winter is that they enjoy “snow roosting.” The Ruffed Grouse flies into drifted snow banks when they are 10 or more inches deep to spend the night. These insulated tunnels provide them with additional warmth when temperatures plunge. Sometimes, when it is especially freezing outside, grouse will spend the majority of their time in the tunnels and only emerge for a few hours to forage for food (since their bodies are not capable of storing a lot of fat, they must eat voraciously). If there are not any available snow banks for grouse to burrow in, they might spend their time in coniferous trees (think fir and spruce) for additional coverage.

For the same reasons, the Ruffed Grouse likes brush piles as a winter shelter. The Ruffed Grouse is one tough bird to be able to withstand diving temperatures and blizzards during Pennsylvania’s winter months. Perhaps we could all benefit from the lesson that if these birds can live outside without the help of woolly socks and hot chocolate, we could stand to spend more time outdoors in the winter time, too!

Some photos in this blog were sourced from the internet. You can find the original photo of the Grouse here. The second photo belongs to the author. The original cover photo can be found here here.