Take Me Outside: Head out and look for the sights and sounds of New Hampshire’s ruffed grouse population
In this photo released by the Outdoor News as ruffed grouse is seen near Brainerd, Minn. in 1999. Approximately 120,000 hunters pursue ruffed grouse each season in Minnesota, making it the state's most popular game bird. According to Mike Larson, DNR research biologist in Grand Rapids, ruffed grouse numbers are again swinging upward after several years in the low end of the cyclical pattern. Several noticeable changes have taken place in the past couple of years that indicate grouse numbers are on the rebound. (AP Photo/Outdoor News, Rob Drieslein of Outdoor News) ** NO SALES **
If you have put on snowshoes and gone outside to enjoy the winter lately, you are not alone. Some wild animals, like the snowshoe hare, have naturally large feet to help them navigate across deep powder. But did you know that one of our local birds also has snowshoe feet?
The Ruffed Grouse, also known as the partridge, has several structures and behaviors that help it survive as a year-round resident of New Hampshire. One of those adaptations is to grow comb-like protrusions on its toes in the fall, triggered by the shortening day length. These little spikes emerge laterally, widening the surface area of each toe. By creating a larger foot print, the grouse is able to walk across the snow without sinking deeply, thus conserving energy at a time of year when that is critical to survival. The “snowshoes” fall off the toes by April or May when they are no longer needed.
Ruffed Grouse are about the size of a chicken and come in both reddish and gray-brown color phases. They spend most of their time walking rather than flying. As they walk across the snow, they leave tracks which are easy to identify. Their three primary toes splay out, forming almost an upside-down T shape, about 2 inches in length. They also tend to put one foot in front of the other, creating a straight line trail.
In addition to their tracks, grouse leave other tell-tale signs behind. Their droppings or scat reflect their vegetarian diet, being made up of plant fiber. This time of year, those fibers come primarily from tree buds, especially from aspen and birch, their preferred winter food. The elongated scat pellets are 3/4 to 11/2 inches long and usually tannish in color. One end may look like it was dipped in white paint. Piles of scat can be found under a tree that was used as a nighttime roost.
If the snow is at least 10 inches deep and fluffy, however, grouse find a warmer place to spend the night . . . under the snow. The grouse plunges into the fluffy snow, which traps air and provides insulation from bitter cold and wind. They dig further into the cavity so they are completely out of sight. The birds’ body heat will be kept close to them by the snow. These burrows never get below 20 degrees. That may not sound warm, but compared to many of the sub-zero nights we’ve had lately, 20 degrees seems balmy, plus there’s no wind chill under the snow. These sleeping tunnels also provide protection from predators.
If you are lucky enough to find one of these burrows, look for wing prints on either side of it, which indicate where the grouse emerged and took flight. I’ve heard tales of skiers and hikers trekking through the winter woods and becoming startled by a grouse bursting forth from its subnivean hideout. That’s a nature experience not quickly forgotten!
Another adaptation exhibited by the ruffed grouse is atypical feather placement. Unlike many other birds, it grows feathers on its legs, which help keep them warm.
Feathers also grow around its beak and cover the nostrils. This warms the air when it inhales, and functions just like the hairs inside our noses.
If all of these structures and behaviors are successful and the grouse survives until spring, you may be able to hear one of the most prominent clues of the ruffed grouse’s presence. When other birds are sharing melodious songs to attract a mate, the male grouse finds a hollow log or stump to stand on and rapidly beats his wings back and forth. The sound of the wing beats starts slow and low, building to a “blurred crescendo” as the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes it. To listen to this sound visit: allaboutbirds.org/guide/ruffed_grouse/sounds. Hopefully some female grouse find this sound enticing and more grouse are produced.
Discovering the signs and sounds of grouse is much easier than seeing the well camouflaged and secretive birds, but it’s great to find clues of their presence. Early colonists hunted and used them for food to the point of near extinction, so we are lucky to share our state with this now common survivor.