Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter Wildlife Chronicles: Grouse

With snow covering most of Idaho today, we begin a new regular blog feature, chronicling "where wildlife goes when it snows."

Winter is a tough time for wildlife, as they struggle to save energy while often living in close proximity with humans. For conservationists, saving suitable winter habitat is one of the most important priorities.

In this feature, we'll look at the different needs--and often strange habits--of wildlife coping in the winter, and how conservationists can help.
This week, we focus on the interesting winter behavior of three Idaho grouse species. Many wildlife species move to escape the snow, often moving from snowy high elevations to the milder conditions found at low elevations. The dusky (or blue) grouse is unique: It actually spends the summer at lower elevations, and then migrates in the winter to the high, snowy mountains.

In the summer, these birds feed on forbs, insects and a variety of other foods. In the winter, though, there's no variety: They exclusively eat pine and fir needles (and only the outer two-thirds of the needle).
By moving to the high snowy mountains in the winter, the grouse avoid competition with the many species found in foothills and valleys. In short, they have their dinners all to themselves.
Another forest grouse species, ruffed grouse, also thrive in snow. As is the case for skiers, it's all about powder for these birds. Researchers have found that ruffed grouse actually burrow under the powder to escape cold temperatures.
Powdery snow has excellent insulating qualities; the grouse need at least eight inches to make a suitable burrow. The grouse create burrows in dramatic fashion--by diving into the snow from the air. The grouse can also escape quickly, flushing from the snow in an explosion of powder.
Sage grouse need sagebrush. It's as simple as that. In the winter, sage grouse eat sagebrush leaves almost exclusively. They also use big sagebrush as a shelter from snow and inclement weather.
Without adequate sagebrush cover, these grouse cannot survive the rigors of winter. That's why The Nature Conservancy has focused a lot of effort in protecting the high-quality sagebrush habitat that still exists in places like the Owyhees, Crooked Creek and the Pioneer Mountains.
Unlike many birds, grouse thrive in snow--provided they have the necessary food and cover provided by healthy, native plant communities.

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