Why Ruffed Grouse Take Winter in Stride

Why Ruffed Grouse Take Winter in Stride

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

Winter in Northern New England is challenging for birds that don’t migrate south. To survive, a bird must find adequate food, refuge from wind and cold, and protection from predators.

Overwintering species have various tricks for survival. The downy woodpecker excavates cavities in trees for shelter. Black-capped chickadees lower their nighttime body temperature to save energy.  American goldfinches, which have about 1,000 feathers during the breeding season, molt in late summer and grow about 2,000 new ones for winter insulation.

When it comes to winter adaptations, however, it’s tough to beat the ruffed grouse. It has all kinds of adaptations, including the ability to hide out under deep snow. 

A ruffed grouse, which is about the size of a small chicken, is well camouflaged with mottled brown feathers that blend with the forest floor during spring, summer and fall. In these seasons they spend much of their time eating more than 100 kinds of plants, mostly leafy ground vegetation. In winter, however, with most of these food sources buried by snow, the ruffed grouse changes its diet, moving to buds, twigs and catkins.

By far the most sought-after winter foods for grouse are the sugar and protein-rich flower buds of trembling aspen. Grouse also consume the buds and catkins of big-toothed aspens, birches, alder, willow, beaked hazelnut and ironwood.  To digest woody material, they rely on a gizzard, a part of their digestive tract, where with the help of tiny pebbles that they swallowed, they are able to break down the tough cellulose fibers.

Ruffed grouse are poor at storing fat. That means they must eat large amounts of food daily, usually at dawn and dusk. But they must be careful to avoid lingering while feeding, as they’re exposed to predators while feeding on the buds of leafless trees. Red-tailed hawks, goshawks and great-horned owls are quick to spot them.

The ruffed grouse does have a way of minimizing risk while dining.  They eat fast. In 20 minutes a grouse can swallow enough buds to make it through the day.  It is able to do this thanks to its crop, a wide portion of the esophagus, which acts as a storage chamber for consumed food. With a loaded crop, the grouse flies to a protected area, where it can safely digest its meal.

Ruffed grouse have other physical and behavioral characteristics that help in winter. In September, fleshy projections – pectinations—begin growing on the sides of their toes.  These comb-like nubs, which fall off in spring, increase the surface area of the foot. Working like snowshoes, they allow the bird to walk across snow with less effort.  Pectinations also give the grouse a better grip on an icy branch where it might perch while feeding.

A grouse, in cold weather, develops special feathers that extend down its beak, covering its nostrils, allowing the bird to breathe in warmer air.  Ruffed grouse also have feathers partially covering and insulating their legs.

The ruffed grouse is famous for its winter roosting routine, commonly referred to as “snow roosting.”  With no snow, or just a few inches of it, the bird is likely to seek protection in conifer stands. If the snow is soft and a foot or more deep, however, the grouse is likely to spend the night in an insulated, air-filled snow tunnel. The grouse builds this tunnel by first plunging from a tree into the snow. Then with its wings and feet the grouse extends the tunnel, sometimes to as much as 10 feet. Recent research suggests that the temperature in a snow hideaway may warm to 32 degrees Fahrenheit and that it rarely falls below 20 degrees—even when it is much colder outside. This tunnel helps the grouse conserve energy, so it needs less food. Less time spent in the open also means less time being exposed to predators. 

A ruffed grouse exits its tunnel with a flap of wings and burst of snow that will scare the daylights out of any snowshoer or skier happening by.  When in the woods, be prepared for such a surprise, while also looking for wing impressions in the snow, sure signs of a quick departure for a quick breakfast.

Mary Holland is a freelance writer, living in Hartland, VT.


  1. Brian Blaine
    Jan 08, 2010

    I grew up on a farm in Orange, Vermont and often on a late afternoon in December I would see the ruffed grouse picking buds in trees along the roadway as I returned from school.  December being the Christmas season, I still, as I did then, relate them to the song of the 12 days of Christmas and the “partridge in a pear tree.”

  2. Frederick w. McAllister → in So. Paris, Me
    Feb 20, 2010

    Of all my years living in Maine I have never seen more than two Grouse at a time other than a mother hen and her brood. Recently I have noticing two hens and one male together feeding in our back yard on buds and vine berries in the trees. One day this week I notice them coming into the yard and there were six of them. I thought this very uncommon for Grouse.

  3. Lois Rae Mrozek → in Hopkinton NH
    Oct 22, 2014

    A few of my family members and myself have been followed around by a female grouse for most of this summer. Lately I cannot get much outside clipping done because it follows so closely behind me and pecks at the back of my legs and ankles.  It now follows me up stairs and across our porch to our front door, it is quite brazen and today, while sitting reading in our living room, I looked up to see the bird sitting on our porch handrail and looking straight at me.

    When my husband walked outside it walked around the deck and sat upon the back of a metal framed chair, which I had just spray painted the day before in the garage.  The chairs of course were dry. The bird sometimes flies up at me, but it always tries to get behind me when I am clipping vines etc. Is this their normal behavior?????

  4. David Frongillo → in Lamoine, Maine
    Mar 29, 2015

    I had a grouse attack me and follow me and attack my legs and back. It wasn’t afraid of leave blower or lawn mower. I have apple trees, I think it was intoxicated from eating fermented apples. It stayed around for 3 weeks and tried to dominate me every time I worked in yard. I hunt them and they are always one step ahead of you, hard to shoot. I don’t get it.


  5. Judi → in East Baldwin MAINE
    May 02, 2016

    My husband has had a ruffed grouse following him around even with our two dogs on leashes. It was originally found injured on the side of the road back in the fall. It recovered in a box outside for a few days and left. This spring (such as it is) it appeared & is always hanging around. It goes on walks with the dogs & my husband & sits on our porch or sometimes on my husband’s shoulder. We have never seen another one anywhere.

    Such a curious creature.

  6. fred graves
    Nov 06, 2016

    I spend the summers in Ontario, CA about the same latitude as the above writers from <aine, VT and NH. This spring (?) a female grouse started striking my white cap as I drove near her area, once knocking it off. This continued all summer, with 8 “attacks”. It happened to others who visited me, so I’ve got witnesses.

    I’ve never seen such a display in 49 years there… and the hen and the male both did it,, and would boldly follow me down the bike trail and eat the corn I’d throw them, always with fierce looks and fearless. Towards the end of the summer, I could rev up my 4 wheeler and they would come, once bringing their now-grown clutch. Weird! And now I can’t even think of hunting them.

  7. Fred Leeuwenburgh → in 3 miles west of Pigeon Lake Alberta Canada
    Feb 18, 2017

    We’ve had ruffed grouse around our acreage for as long as I can remember.
    However, this fall there were more than ever before.  I was going to pick apples from the two trees infront of the house.  I counted 13 birds that flew out of those trees.  We have often seen groups of 5 or 6.
    Tonight when we came home we had 4 feeding on the bird seed my sister puts out for the chickadees and nuthatches.  A drake and 3 hens.

  8. Michael → in Edson Alberta
    Feb 09, 2018

    We also are privileged of the daily visits from two spotted grouse beneath the shelter of out large spruce trees. Being retired and winter days sometimes seem endless,they are truly a welcomed delight beneath our living room window

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