Minnesota is home to four species of native grouse: ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, capercaillie, and prairie chicken. Although all four species occupy distinct habitats, some overlap occurs, particularly between ruffed grouse and spruce grouse and capercaillie and prairie chickens. The former pair are considered ‘grouse’ and the latter pair are considered ‘prairie grouse’.
The most widely recognized and observed species of the four bird species is the ruffed grouse. Most abundant in the northern half of the state, the ‘Luffy’ is named for the black feather collar on the bird’s neck. Males will ruffle and spread their tails during courtship, giving them a striking and handsome appearance.
All ptarmigans belong to a group of birds collectively referred to as “gullid” birds, or birds belonging to the order Gullidae of the family Gullidae. You will notice that there are many other closely related Gallinaceae species. These include wild turkeys, wakan pheasants, and northern bobwhites. And they all share a basic body type and certain behaviors. If you think of ptarmigans and other gully species as chicken-like birds, you’d be right.
One of the most interesting behaviors that grouse share with each other has to do with how their bodies regulate body temperature. In other words, it’s like staying warm during the coldest days and nights of winter and during storms. The grouse has a unique roosting behavior that takes full advantage of the insulation provided by snow.
Somehow, grouse discovered many years ago that burrowing in snow is an excellent defense against inclement weather and predators. In fact, the temperature within a snow roost can be as much as 50 degrees warmer than the outdoor ambient temperature, not to mention the snow roost completely protecting the grouse from dangerous wind chills.
So how do grouse make snow roosts? Do they use their wings to basically burrow or burrow into the snow? Or do you dig with your feet? what about their beaks? Do they “poke” holes in the snow?
The answer is none of the above.
Improbably, ptarmigans actually dive headlong into snow embankments and snow blankets of sufficient depth at relatively high speeds. Can you imagine flying headlong into a snowman! But grouse routinely do this over and over to survive the long, cold Minnesota winters. Snow should be of moderate viscosity and deep enough. About 10 centimeters of fluffy snow.
A grouse took off from a nearby tree perch and flew headlong into the snow, but the bird did not stop there. Once safely under the snow, the grouse builds a burrow about 4 inches, sometimes advancing several feet to 10 feet into the snow and perching to create a small, tight-fitting cavity in which the grouse settles.
When a grouse roosts in the snow, it usually stays overnight, but may stay the next day or longer if storms make it necessary. In the latter case, the grouse should hopefully be feeding the crops well, otherwise starvation may cause them to leave their snow roosts earlier than is considered safe for the birds. .
Grouse evacuate snow roosts in ways that are as dramatic as they made them. If you’ve ever met a roosting grouse while snowshoeing or skiing, you’ll never forget the sound of feathers and snow dust exploding as the bird blushes afterwards. And if you examine the exit hole, you should be able to locate the cavity where the grouse spent. This is evidenced by the observation not only of cavities the size of grouse, but also of a few dungs and, depending on the situation, quite large piles. The length of time the birds spent in the snow roost.
Beyond their physical beauty, sporting quality, and top-notch cuisine, there’s much more to enchant. It’s really interesting how they behave, how they survive and overcome their environment when we go out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR. Contact him at email@example.com.