Wildlife: Ruffed grouse use snow to combat the cold

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Trails through thickets can yield surprises, especially when fresh powder hushes your cross-country skis. One of my favorite skiing spots is Fort Necessity National Battlefield, on Route 40, the Old National Road. The trails there offer many routes and wildlife is abundant. I seldom ski or hike there without seeing turkeys and deer. Twice I've encountered bears, and the loping prints of fishers mingle with coyote tracks under dark spruce.

The outer route passes through barberry and honeysuckle. Appropriately, the National Park Service is working to eradicate these invasive exotics but, for now, wildlife takes advantage of their tangled thickets and edible fruits.

As I skirted close to a barberry one evening last week, the snow erupted in a plume of expelled powder and concussive noise. I have no experience with combat and wish to express my respect for all who do, but I imagine the snowy explosion was something remotely like tripping a land mine.

I had flushed a ruffed grouse from its snow roost, and when I ventured off trail to investigate the resulting crater, four more grouse burst out, one at a time, within an area that would fit inside your kitchen.

Grouse are well adapted to winter. Besides their physical adaptations, including scaly "snowshoes" that grow along the sides of their toes to ease winter walking, grouse use behavioral tactics to seasonal advantage. When powdery snow lies at least 10 inches deep, grouse will power-dive or drop from a tree branch and bury themselves, seeking insulation from cold. Sometimes they'll remain where they landed, their entry hole directly above. Other times they'll burrow for several feet, seeking a favorable location. The bird's body heat can raise the temperature inside the roost to around 32 degrees, even when the air above is much colder.

In nature, though, survival tactics have risks. If rain falls followed by plummeting temperatures, as we've experienced at times this winter, ice can trap grouse roosted beneath. But grouse are strong and tenacious and dig out of all but the most iron-hard crust.

When I was a boy following my father and his friends on a grouse hunt above the Youghiogheny River, my dad called me to his side. He had stopped a few feet short of an oval-shaped cavity in the snow, about the size of a softball. He instructed me to approach the hole. When I did a grouse burst out to my utter surprise. My dad didn't even shoot. He simply wanted me to experience a flush from a snow-roost, and I remember him each time I savor the surprise and pleasure of encountering a grouse, roosted snug beneath snow.

Scott Shalaway is recovering from surgery and will be back in a couple of weeks. Ben Moyer is a freelance writer from Farmington, Pa.

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