A Winter Ready Bird

When I spotted the still form of a ruffed grouse in the road ahead I just had to stop and pick it up. It was a brisk frosty Northern Michigan morning, and the poor thing had apparently just been struck by a car only minutes before I came along. It was a beautiful bird – the kind of road kill that had all the vitality of life without the life to go with it (yes, that may sound odd but it beats saying something like “it was in great shape except for the fact that it was dead.”).  In other words it was well worth examining (see here). You know what they say about a bird in the hand…

One of these birds had nearly collided with me only a half hour earlier when it careened out of the pre-dawn darkness and clumsily landed in front of me as I walked to the car. It was so dark that we both had to eye each other suspiciously for a few seconds before recognizing each for what we were. The grouse, its light sensitive eyes finally making out my human form, re-exploded into flight and took off into the dark space across the road. My wife and I also went off into the darkness and left our Dollar Lake cottage for the three hour journey back to our work-a-day world. Seeing the dead grouse so soon after this incident seemed more than coincidence. I don’t believe that God was telling me anything important, however, other than “it is time to ponder a grouse” (although I’d be the first to admit that I could have mis-read the message. Was he trying to tell me to build an ark out of feathers?).

My plump hand-held specimen of road killed Grouse was a female but, as I will explain, at first glance there was no way to tell. Several general grousy things immediately struck me about this bird. First of all, the dazzling array of mottled brown and gray feathers was astounding. Though not brightly colored, this grouse was certainly a work of art. It is no wonder that Ruffed Grouse are masters of camouflage. They can become invisible against any earthy backdrop.

The head was adorned with a crest, fallen in death but easily erected by a gentle push of the thumb, and the stout bud-eating beak betrayed its close relationship to pheasants and chickens. One thing that was not immediately obvious was the ruff for which this species was named- a trait marking it as a female. Females do not possess the full black collar of their male counterparts, but they do have vestigial ruffs.  It was the tail that told the full gender story on this bird.

Grouse have substantial tails which they occasionally fan out to display particular emotions (such as “why in the heck is that guy standing out here in the dark?”). When fanned, the feathers exhibit a speckled gray background with an outer black band. Males have a continuous band and females normally have an incomplete or broken band, but this is a nebulous trait. Male tail feathers are also typically longer than the female tail plumes – 6 inches plus as opposed to less than 6 inches.  The central tail feather on my bird measured out at 5 ¼ inches and was firmly in feminine territory.

The true secret of Ruffed Grouse anatomy, male or female, lies in their feet. Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point is a digression when it comes to pondering grouse. These wonderful appendages are worthy of a very close look. As winter approaches, grouse grow a set of snow shoes that allow them to walk lightly over the wintery landscape. Rather than simply growing a fringe of foot feathers they actually grow comb-like projections, called pectinations, along each toe (see above and here). In the manner of good snowshoes they act to spread the bird’s weight out when on lightly crusted snow. These solid horny plates do not begin growing until September. They are retained until spring, at which point they fall off.

Our road kill bird was equipped with a full set of snowtires. Here we have an incredible adaptation for living in northern climes matched only by the prodigious pads of the Snowshoe Hare. Perhaps I will run into one of these mammals in the near future (literally), but for now I’ll leave you to marvel at one of nature’s better avian designs.

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