Ruffed Grouse and Winter

The state bird of Pennsylvania, ruffed grouse is a clever little game bird that’s very well adapted to winter.  Ruffed grouse is non-migratory, and even sleeps in self-made snow tunnels when conditions permit. Insulating feathers thicken around its nostrils, and around its legs, as fall temperatures drop. 

Most interesting, however, are the pectinations that appear – Professor Julian Avery, Penn State, photographed a ruffed grouse foot “in its winter ‘form’:”

Ruffed Grouse winter feet pectinations - by Julian D Avery
Ruffed Grouse feet in winter, showing pectinations - by Julian D Avery

Pectinations - Ruffed Grouse's Winter Feet

“During fall, they grow these pectinations, or comb-like structures, on the outsides of their toes. These modified scales help them tread on snow like a snowshoe does, and will fall off when spring arrives. Adaptations like these enable species to exist in all manner of crazy environments, and they also make a powerful argument for the conservation of biodiversity. Imagine the time and trial by selection it took to reach this solution, that not only helps them find scarce resources, but that is also in sync with the seasons.”
— Julian D. Avery

Pectinate:   having narrow parallel projections or divisions suggestive of the teeth of a comb

The pectinations on the winter foot of a ruffed grouse is an extension of the scales, made of cartilage, and not feathers. 

Snow Roosting: the Grouse Dive Bombs to Bed

Other adaptations include “snow roosting.”  When the snow is deep enough, and loose enough, a ruffed grouse will perch on a branch, choose its spot, and propel itself into the ground.  Widening its tunnel by waddling and winging a bit further, the grouse spends its night burning fewer calories and protected from wintry outside air and wind chill.  This snow-tunnel strategy also helps hide him from its bevy of predators:  goshawks, great horned owls, fox, and fishers.  Ruffed grouse are infamous for bursting explosively forth from these snow dens, another way to startle and evade predators, and hikers.  Learn more: 

Ruffed Grouse Society - Snow Roosting
Ruffed Grouse Society - Snow Roosting

Bonasa umbellus

Order: Upland Game Birds – Galliformes (incl. turkeys, grouse, chickens, quails, and pheasants)
Family: Upland Game Birds – Phasianidae (heavy, ground-dwelling birds)
Species: Ruffed Grouse – Bonasa umbellus

Mating ritual: drumming – a rapid beating of wings by the male
A group of grouse is a: covey

Ruffed Grouse - Ruffed Grouse Society instagram 2021-03-24
Ruffed Grouse - Ruffed Grouse Society instagram 2021-03-24

Conservation of Ruffed Grouse

Though currently designated a species of “least concern,” ruffed grouse populations have declined steadily for over three decades, primarily due to:

Habitat loss

Ruffed grouse particularly need early successional forest – the phase between field and saplings.  Grouse and woodcock were among those species that benefitted from the clear-cutting of Pennsylvanian forests in the 1800s, nesting in the downed treetops and grasses.  Ruffed grouse also needs mature forest – for winter shelter and forage.

Climate change 

As a species especially adapted to deep winter conditions, ruffed grouse is losing its evolutionary edge as our winters warm.  Poor or icy snow cover renders grouse more susceptible to energy depletion, predation, and freezing.

West Nile Virus

This mosquito-transmitted disease is reducing grouse numbers – and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been tracking its “very high mortality” impact on our local population since its appearance in the early 2000s.  Warmer weather and stagnant water benefit mosquitos – save a grouse, eliminate standing water on your property.  Read more about West Nile in ruffed grouse:

Birdwatching Basics

Birdwatching Resource List - Cook Forest Conservancy - Birding Essentials

Coronavirus cabin fever?  Lots of house-bound folks are getting into birdwatching lately – a fun & easy outdoor springtime activity, even better when you’ve got a couple of guide books and apps, and a pair of decent binoculars.  While we at the CFC are beginning birders ourselves, here’s a list of resources that we find helpful.   

Birding Apps: 

  • Audubon Bird Guide – amazingly comprehensive.  Download the Eastern data file to access multiple search indexes, high-res images, and bird call audio when you’re offline.  
  • Merlin Bird ID – identify that bird by key, by photo – or BY SOUND!  Just hit a button on your phone to record songs, and this excellent free app analyzes and interprets all the birds who are singing – and links to more info on each  
  • eBird – Cornell Lab’s quick & simple app interface for tracking sightings – use this one for The Great Backyard Bird Count

Birdwatching Books:

Online Birding Resources:

Items that Help Bring the Birds to You:

  • binoculars – probably the only investment a beginning birder should make.  Audubon has a comprehensive guide to binoculars at various price points here, and from this list I bought the Celestron Nature DX 8×42 and have been really pleased with their brightness and clarity.  I also have the 10×42 model of the Nature DX, and it’s great, too – they magnify a bit more, and are a bit harder to target and hold steady.
  • bird feeder, tube style – this model is also available at Tractor Supply and Wal-Mart, has lasted several years, and attracts chickadees, tufted titmice, goldfinches, sparrows, nuthatches, woodpeckers up to red-bellied size, cardinals, and bluejays.  Grackles are almost too large for it, and they dislike a hood (e.g. a 2′ or so diameter circle slid over the hanger) or roof add-on, if you’re having problems with them.
  • bird feeder, double suet cage – a good sturdy design for attracting woodpeckers and nuthatches, and the flat roof doubles as a platform for feeding oranges, etc. 
  • hummingbird feeder – this model is easier to clean than the bottle types.  Hummingbird feeders should be boiled or washed with a weak bleach solution between fillings, so they don’t harbor mold & bacteria.  Here’s the best recipe for hummingbird nectar – only use plain white sugar and water, in a one to four ratio.

To pick up any of the above, and enjoy their excellent backyard bird sanctuary, visit The Birdwatchers Store in Slippery Rock.  Happy birding!

Lead Poisoning in Birds

Cook Forest Conservancy - Lead Poisoning in Eagles from Ammunition

Bald and golden eagles prefer fish, but are opportunistic foragers that scavenge when practical. In most areas, eagles have access to food sources with expended lead bullets – field-shot pest species, offal piles, non-recovered game, and weakened, contaminated live prey. 

Deer pits across the Game Commission’s State Game Lands provide a regular source of food for scavenging eagles.  Hunting season falls in autumn and winter, when scavenging for food becomes more important – and lead poisoning victim numbers spike.

Between 2006 and 2016, lead poisoning was found in one-third of 228 eagles from across Pennsylvania – 30% had detectable levels of heavy metals in their liver.  While the specimens died variously from trauma by car, train, and gunshot (also electrocution and infection), the examined animals mostly accumulated the lead levels as a result of scavenging.  Lead poisoning destroys the nervous system.  If it doesn’t kill the bird outright, the lead poisoning renders it too weak and disoriented to either hunt for food, or protect itself from predators and threats.

One simple way to reduce lead toxicity in eagles and other wildlife is to use non-lead ammunition.

Both performance and cost of non-lead ammunition is comparable to lead counterparts. The PA Game Commission advocates the use of non-lead ammunition to hunters, and it’s safer for people, too, since the lead can’t fragment or leach into game meat. Please ask your local supplier to stock non-lead ammo 🙂

Centre Wildlife Care - tube-feeding lead poisoned eagle
Centre Wildlife Care volunteers tube-feeding a Bald Eagle suffering from lead poisoning

From Centre Wildlife Care:

Since 2013, when we got our blood lead machine, all of the bald eagles that we have taken in have had some level of lead in their blood. Most have needed chelation therapy to remove the lead from the system, plus antibiotics, tube feeding, and months of rehabilitation before they could be released. Some were too sick to save from the lead toxicity/ trauma and died.

We have also seen lead poisoning in hawks, eagles, vultures, crows, gulls, ducks, geese, swans, loons and grebes.

For more information, and to find non-lead ammo, contact: 

Black-capped Chickadee sings Cheese-burger

All spring, three or four of these little black-capped chickadee birds have been frequenting the suet cake feeders and singing in the forest.  They have a number of calls and songs, but their “cheese-burger” song is by far the most charming.  This rendition was recorded near the Clarion River in early April:

To hear the black-capped chickadee sing cheeseburger next spring, head to Tom’s Run Road in Cook Forest State Park in mid-April.  For more information on the birds, and additional sound recordings, visit these pages on Audubon & the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which provides this fact:

Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons…

Want to attract black-capped chickadees?

black-capped chickadee by Alain Yvan Séguin

To bring black-capped chickadees to your own yard, follow a few simple tips that will also help other local wildlife.  If you know the CFC, you know that we love birds, and creating good habitat for all the creatures of western Pennsylvania.  Here’s a quick overview:

  • provide habitat – plant natives, and leave dead trees and bramble patches
  • provide attractive feeding, watering, & nesting sites
  • minimize predators – especially housecats (any cats, whether yours or feral), which injure all sort of critters when let outdoors

For further details on the habits and habitats of black-capped chickadees, and how to attract them to your yard (and improve your little piece of the area’s ecosystem generally), see this post: 

Our thanks to Alain Yvan Séguin, Member of the Wild Birds Unlimited group, for the stunning black-capped chickadee photo, and to for reaching out about expanding this article 🙂