North Country Grouse: Is global warming A thing and how cold hardy are they?

07:55

Photo from Brtthomes Blog

I live in the North Country and I don't ski, winters suck. I don't know what else to say about that. Recently I was sitting in my house dodging some ridiculously low temps and watching out my window for the wildlife that frequents my backyard. The only catch on this day is that there wasn't any. It got me thinking about my poor little grouse and how they were handling the cold.
There has long been a theory in the dacks about severe winters killing off good portions of the grouse population.

I don't necessarily subscribe to this theory but I'm not discounting it either. If there is one thing I have learned living here, it's that the locals understand their wildlife better than most. The following day after that frigid winter afternoon I woke up to find a drastic thaw had occurred and I jumped on the chance to take the dog on walk through the woods with no snowshoes. A good hard crust had developed on the snow and I could easily keep my chubby stout frame on top of it. Thats when my wheels started turning.

Global warming or climate change, no matter how you look at it, is no longer some outlandish theory that Al Gore came up with. It's all around us, the evidence in insurmountable and easily seen by the lamen over a short period of time. We still have harsh winters here in the North country, but something we can't deny is that more and more frequently we go through warm spells mid winter that create icy conditions. How does this effect our grouse populations? I've spent a great deal of time recently thinking about it.
Photo from the Old Farmers Almanac
Ruffed grouse are a very cold hardy bird. They have great feathers for insulation and are known to fluff themselves up into a ball in the winter to provide additional resistance from the wind and cold, they also have scaly feet that help them maneuver through snowy environments.
The blessing and the curse for grouse in the winter is their diet. Grouse have a widely varied diet but in the winter their diet gets restricted to whats available, woody plant matter. grouse eat a lot of buds and other woody food during the winter, it has little nutritional value and birds that aren't able to fatten up in fall are going to have a rough go it. One of their remarkable biological traits is that they have microorganisms in their digestive tract that help to digest the woody food and turn it into a fairly high level of heat that helps keep them warm. It's amazing what traits animals have developed to help them cope with their environment.
photo from http://ca.audubon.org/audublog
What concerns me is the more and more frequent freezing rain. If the grouse are relying on the buds, and the buds are frozen, its pretty hard to get to their food. We do know grouse can survive without food for several days in their caves without food.

Speaking of caves. A  truly cool behavior that grouse have is their desire to use snow caves in the winter to help them retain heat. Grouse will literally dive bomb into the snow during cold conditions and hole up in snow caves that allow them to raise their body temperature. This behavior is known as snow roosting and the temporary home they create their is known is some circles as a kieppe. Research has shown that the temperature on even the coldest days can rise to above freezing inside their cave. However again, research has shown instances of grouse breaking their necks diving into a layer of crust on top of the snow and additional observations have noted birds that have starved to death in their caves when they become encapsulated by ice and can't get out.
Photo from wintercampers.com

I'm not saying the end is near when it comes to grouse and increasingly difficult winters. But as mindful sportsman there are things we can do to play our part. Here's a small list of things that the experts recommend.


  • When possible, choose power companies that generate power from renewable sources like wind or solar energy, not all of us have that opportunity but where it exists its an excellent option. A lot of power companies now provide information at request about how you can support renewable berry sources.
  • Winterize your homes by sealing off drafts and making sure you properly insulate your homes and heated spaces. Simply by using less, you can have an impact. I turned down the heat in my house by 2 degrees and sealed all of my windows and doors.
  • Anytime you make home improvements, purchase energy efficient appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers etc. You can drastically reduce carbon emissions by purchasing equipment that will actually save you money.
  • The EPA is encouraging people to reduce their water waste, according to their estimates if only one out of 100 homes would participate in this practice you could eliminate 80,000 tons of pollution contributing to global warming.
  • Reduce your food waste. A tremendous amount of land and water resources are contaminated by food waste. We throw away more food than anyone else and that food has to go somewhere. Usually the landfill.
  • Maintaining your vehicle properly can increase its efficiency and lead to reduced fuel consumption. This can be as simple as changing your filters and keeping your tires properly inflated. It seems like a small thing but it certainly has a compounded effect.

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