Winter Ruffed Grouse
I saw a ruffed grouse in a tree near our house the other day. It is always fun to see them, and even though they are permanent residents in the Turtle Mountains, I seldom see them during the winter months.
This particular grouse was gray. As some of you may know, there are two color phases of ruffed grouse, gray and red, and both can be found in North Dakota. Most of what I see around here is the gray phase.
Even though we do not often see ruffed grouse during the winter, they are active all year. They feed on a variety of food items including the buds and catkins from aspen and hazel, willow buds, and the fruits of a several plants such as highbush cranberry, rose, nannyberry, and snowberry.
Occasionally I will see their tracks in the snow. During the winter months, the grouse’s toes have small growths resembling a comb on the sides of their toes. These growths function similarly to snowshoes which help the grouse walk across the surface of the snow more easily.
It might surprise you, but ruffed grouse are known to fly into deep snow. They simply fly into a snow bank and spend several hours or even overnight under the big white blanket which provides insulation from the cold temperatures above. No doubt the grouse have been doing a lot of that recently.
Grouse may also plunge into the snow to avoid predators. John James Audubon was apparently aware of this elusive move by ruffed grouse. In his Birds of America he noted that “When the ground is covered with snow sufficiently soft to allow this bird to conceal itself under it, it dives headlong into it with such force as to form a hole several yards in length, re-appears at that distance, and continues to elude the pursuit of the sportsman by flight.”
By the way, if you ever startle one of these grouse to flush from under the snow your heart will probably skip a beat or two. That happened to me a couple years ago while cross country skiing, and I can speak from experience that it will definitely wake you up! It took me a few seconds to make sure I was still alive and everything was in its proper place!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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