I have just joined this blog as a new contributor, and as I was thinking about what I wanted to write for my first post, Mother Nature literally almost dropped her suggestion on our doorstep – so I figured I would listen. This past Thursday morning my husband, Chris, and I got up and started getting ready for work. As Chris was letting our Greater Swiss Mountain Dog McKinley out into the back yard he hollered for me to come quick. There, just on the other side of our fence, was a feathery lump on the ice. “It just flew off,” Chris said, “It was a small hawk.” My heart sank. Not another one. We had just lost a speckled sussex from our laying flock to a hawk earlier in the month. “It looks too small to be one of the ladies,” Chris said. (Yes – we call our chickens ‘the ladies’ – besides being a plant nerd I have also become a chicken nerd since moving to the country).
Well, time to go investigate. I threw on my bogs – they may be popular gardening boots – but I enjoy mine year round – and headed out back to see if we had lost another chicken. Not the way you want to start your morning. But when we got out there – the good news was that the pile of feathers was most definitely not a chicken. Now I am a birder – but not an expert by any means – and I wasn’t in ‘birding mode’ at the moment either – heck – I hadn’t even had my coffee yet. There wasn’t much to go on – and I wasn’t sure, so I plucked out a nice tail feather and brought it back up to the house with me. My guess was that it was a ruffed grouse, but I wasn’t sure. It had been a while since I had thought about what a ruffed grouse looks like. Chris has seen them in our woods in the fall, so I knew they are around.
I got on my computer and googled ‘ruffed grouse tail feather’. Bingo. That is what it was. While I was happy it wasn’t one of our ladies, I was bummed for the grouse. They are such beautiful birds. But that is nature. It isn’t all pretty flowers and pretty birds. Birds have to eat. And apparently if a sharp-shinned hawk ( I didn’t get to see it – but from Chris’ description – I’m pretty sure that is what it was) is hungry enough, it will go after a ruffed grouse.
Well all this early morning discovery channel action in the back yard got me to thinking about just what ruffed grouse usually do in the winter – and what they eat. These well camouflaged, ground nesting birds, are perhaps best known for exploding from the forest floor in clearings so quickly that they are gone before you can even get a good look. Or for the drumming males, trying to warn away other males and attract themselves a mate with their wing beating display. But it also turns out, grouse have some really neat adaptations for getting through a long, snowy winter.
Their toes grow projections – called pectinations – off their sides, making them look like combs. These projections turn their little bird feet into snow shoes – helping them walk across the top of deep snow instead of sinking in. They also grow feathers that cover their nostrils in the winter, warming the air that they are breathing in. They have feathers on their legs as well. On winter days like today when there is pretty much no snow on the ground, grouse hang out in evergreen stands. But when there is plenty of snow, they practice ‘snow roosting’ where they actually dive into a snowbank of soft snow to spend the night. These snow tunnels can sometimes be up to 10 ft in length, and keep the temperature around freezing, even when it is much colder outside. A very simple igloo if you will, that conserves energy and provides protection from predators.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have ruffed grouse in their backyard. In general, they need 20-40 acres of woodland to set up shop. So if you have woods or live near woods in the northern part of the country you might be in luck. You can see a range map here to find out if ruffed grouse live in your area. Another really cool bird found in clearings in the woods is the American woodcock, or Timberdoodle. You can read a great post all about these birds by Ginny Stibolt.
While the chicks feed on insects at first, as they grow their diet shifts to plants and fruits. Grouse eat the leaves, seeds, catkins, and buds of trees such as aspen, ironwood, oak, black cherry, and birch. Optimum ruffed grouse habitat is typically stands of aspen, but oak, conifers, and other lowland trees and shrubs are an option if you don’t have aspen in your area. Grouse feed at dawn and dusk. This time of year they need to be especially careful of predators such as hawks and owls, as they are very exposed as they eat tree buds off trees with no leaves. They eat quickly, and can eat all the food they need for a day in just 20 minutes. Unfortunately it appears that the bird that inspired this post did not eat quickly enough.
Grouse need an understory of saplings and tall shrubs that provide cover year round. There are many great shrubs that you can plant to provide food for grouse (and other birds and wildlife as well) in the fall and winter. Hazelnut, witch hazel, chokecherry, serviceberry and nannyberry are good options for understory plantings. Here in New York, we have two different native hazelnuts that are great food and cover for a wide variety of wildlife. The beaked hazelnut, which is slightly smaller at 5-6′ and with longer fruits, and the American hazelnut, which can reach 12′ in height.
Elderberry, highbush blueberry, native dogwoods and viburnums, and canada yew all provide berries for ruffed grouse. For vines, try bittersweet or wild grape. Just make sure you plant the native bittersweet, and not the invasive Oriental Bittersweet. Winterberry is a great groundcover, and ruffed grouse enjoy the berries and might nibble on the leaves a bit as well. If you want to learn more about planting native plants for birds, there are lots of resources out there. One of my favorites is Native Plants for Native Birds, a local book for the Central New York area. Chances are there is a similar publication for the area that you live in.
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