Ruffed Grouse are one of the most adapted winter bird species.
There are few bird species that are known to take winter in a good way. This is the reason so many birds are migratory, whether song birds, waterfowl, or our beloved American Woodcock. Even the iconic wild turkey is not well equipped to handle all the elements of the north country. Deep snow can prove to be a real hazard to turkey’s, whether food is present or not. The ruffed grouse, however, is an enigma in the world of birds when it comes to winter survival.
As winter begins to close in, ruffed grouse will develop new feathers. The first of those feathers on their feet which is believed to allow them to walk on snow better as well as grip icy branches (for feeding in trees) that many birds would not be able to negotiate. Their beaks also develop some extra protection (feathers) to allow the adaptation to extreme cold temperatures.
Their habits also change, primarily that of their habitat. Firs become primary roosting cover for protection from the winds. As snow becomes deeper, the ruffed grouse displays one of its most fascinating adaptations- burrowing in snow. Much like “igloos”, these shelters will raise temperatures higher than the open air, allowing to survive the most brutal of temperatures.
However, some theorize that a swing in temperatures created by climate change can sometimes turn these winter burrows into a void adaptation. The melting of snow followed by a cooling of the air can create sheets of ice that do not allow the ruffed grouse to penetrate them for burrows.
Even more unusual is this adaptation allows for a drastic change in habitat. Our traditional “Grouse Cover” is usually unused as mature trees like aspen provide most winter food for the ruffed grouse. The buds high in these trees are fed upon in quick feeding frenzies that last only a tiny window in the day. It is believed one feeding is enough for a ruffed grouse to gather enough energy for a whole day while living in these winter burrows. Because of this diet change, ruffed grouse will choose to burrow in mature stands rather than young growth, allowing for a fast feeding and return to a burrow for protection from predators.
The debate has come into play more than once of how hunting ruffed grouse in late winter can impact a population. Although it seems to be a discussion riddled in opinion the winters are hard on all wildlife. Bringing up the idea that overexertion can lead to calorie loss thus resulting in death. Strangely, the ruffed grouse is not good at storing fat, forcing them to have a need to feed daily, which is in of itself an adaptation. We could debate, because they consume their food daily rather than survive on stores of fat, that they become less vulnerable to pressure.
But in like all things related to the ruffed grouse it always comes back to habitat. If there is healthy habitat than chances of overall survival are greater than for those ruffed grouse in areas of the country that lack a healthy forest diversity.