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Gallinaceous Birds

Winter Adaptations of the Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse have both behavioral (diving into the snow on cold nights) and physical strategies for dealing with the cold, snow and ice of New England winters.  Three of the physical changes that take place in the fall are evident by looking closely at a grouse’s legs, feet and beak. The feathers on its legs grow thicker and further down towards its feet, to provide better insulation.  Small comb-like growths of skin, called pectinations, develop along either side of each toe.  These increase the surface area of a grouse’s foot, and serve as snowshoes in deep snow.  They also help the grouse cling to icy branches while it quickly snips off poplar and other buds at either end of the day.  And on its beak, feathers expand downward to cover its nostrils, slowing the cold air and giving it a chance to warm up before it is inhaled by the grouse.

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Tom Turkeys Strutting Their Stuff

3-19-18 wild turkey IMG_7081Congratulations to Penny Jessop, who submitted the first correct Mystery Photo answer!

In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys begin gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major caruncles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow (these primary wing feathers are responsible for the parallel lines either side of the trail of tracks), elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her.

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Hen Turkeys Protecting Poults

6-12-17 wild turkey hen 197

Wild Turkey chicks, or poults, can be seen these days scurrying at their mother’s feet, trying to keep up with her as they forage in fields for grasshoppers and other insects. How the hen turkey reacts to a human (or other) threat depends on the age of her poults. If they are very young (under a week old), she huddles stock still with her brood in a frozen position.   With wings and tail spread, she provides them with shelter. If they are detected, she gives a vocal command to her young to remain “frozen,” and feigns an attack on the intruder, simultaneously making a “putting” sound to quiet her chicks. By the time they are a week old, poults tend to evade possible predators by running away. At nine days old and later, most poults fly into low vegetation when threatened. By the time her brood is three weeks old, the hen commands them to fly into trees at the sign of danger.

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Tom Turkeys Gobbling & Strutting

3-30-17 tom turkey IMG_7637In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys began gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place. Hearing a tom turkey gobble is as sure a sign of spring as the sight of one strutting.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major carbunkles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for photo op.)

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The Relationship Between Ruffed Grouse & Poplars In Winter

1-12-17-ruffed-grouse-aspens-049a2566Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).

Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.)  Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source:  Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)

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Ruffed Grouse Drumming

3-22-16 ruffed grouse IMG_0778A majority of male passerines, or perching birds (also called songbirds) claim territories and secure mates through song.   With the help of a syrinx, or voice box, musical notes, some more complex than others, are created.  There are species of birds in different orders that use other parts of their bodies for territorial and courtship displays, among them ruffed grouse (wings), American woodcock (wings) and Wilson’s snipe (tail).

Male ruffed grouse, also known as partridge, are aggressively territorial throughout their adult lives, defending roughly 6-10 acres of woodland which is usually shared with one or two hens. The male grouse claims his property by engaging in a “drumming” display during which he creates a sound reminiscent of a lawn mower starting up. This sound is made by the male beating his wings against the air to create a vacuum, as lightning does when it makes thunder. The drummer usually stands on a log, stone or mound of dirt roughly 10-12 inches above the ground when drumming and this substrate is called a “drumming log.” He does not strike the log to make the noise, he only uses the drumming log as a stage for his display.

Grouse occasionally drum in the summer and fall, but in the spring, drumming becomes more frequent and prolonged as the male advertises his location to hens seeking a mate.  This phenomenon is heard but rarely seen by humans; Lang Elliott has captured both the sight and sound of a ruffed grouse drumming in this extraordinary video:   http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/ruffed-grouse/    (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Ruffed Grouse Flying Into Windows

1-25-16 dead ruffed grouse by Eve BernhardThose of us who feed birds are well aware of the hazards that windows and glass doors present to birds. The latest research shows that roughly 988 million birds are killed each year in the United States from hitting windows. Migratory birds and songbirds are the most common victims, but Ruffed Grouse, especially in the fall and winter, are very apt to collide with glass windows. (This phenomenon is not the same as the aggressive behavior towards glass that a bird’s reflection can promote, especially by males during the breeding season.)

Many of the grouse victims are first-year birds. Often, inexperienced young grouse, frightened by a predator, crash into buildings, trees or windows in a so-called “crazy-flight.” Hard, transparent glass is not something grouse recognize as a barrier, due to the reflections it creates. There are a number of things one can do to reduce the chances of this happening. Netting, decals, window film and tape hanging from the top of the window can help. One of many creative new products available are window panes that have external patterns that birds can see from the outside, but that are invisible from the inside. On a national level, legislation and bird-friendly buildings are gaining traction. For more window crash-prevention ideas, go to http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/featured-stories/15-products-that-prevent-windows-strikes/. (Photo by Eve Bernhard)

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The Short Life Span of Ruffed Grouse

1-8-16  fisher and grouse 177Ruffed grouse typically have a short life span; few live to be three years old. By mid-August about 60 percent of the grouse hatched that year are lost to predators, weather extremes, disease, accidents (such as flying into windows) and hunters. Less than half of the surviving young survive through the winter to have a chance to breed in the spring, and less than half of those that survive long enough to breed make it to a second mating season. The hazards for a ruffed grouse are many, with predation at the top of the list.

Birds of prey, especially the goshawk and great horned owl, take many grouse, but terrestrial hunters such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats and fishers also take advantage of this plentiful food source. Along with hares, porcupines, squirrels, mice and voles, grouse are one of the fisher’s preferred foods. A fisher managed to capture a ruffed grouse in the pictured scene, leaving only tracks and a few tell-tale feathers to tell the story.

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Wild Turkeys Flying

wild turkey 186Wild Turkeys spend 99.9% of their time on the ground, and often it is assumed they cannot fly. While the Wild Turkey is one of the heaviest North American birds, second only to the Trumpeter Swan, it definitely is able to lift itself off the ground and take flight. In fact, a Wild Turkey is amazingly well adapted for explosive, short-distance flight, perfect for escaping predators.

When startled or threatened, a turkey squats slightly, takes a few steps and then explodes upward with help from its powerful legs. Turkey wings are highly cupped, which enables quick takeoff, and the breast muscles that power a turkey’s wings are built for rapid but brief exertions. After take-off, which can be at a steep or small angle, a turkey’s wings beat rapidly until the desired height is attained. The turkey usually then glides to a tree or the ground, where it lands.

Although the maximum distance turkeys can fly in a single flight is estimated to be approximately one mile, they rarely fly more than about 100 yards, which is usually enough to bring it to safety. The average speed a turkey obtains while flying any distance is anywhere between thirty and fifty-five miles per hour. Equally as (or more) impressive than its ability to fly is a turkey’s ability to swim. They have been observed tucking their wings in close, spreading their tail and kicking while in the water.

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Ruffed Grouse Make Do With Shallow Soft Snow Depth

snow cave 143There are about five or six inches of new powdery snow on top of an icy crust in parts of central Vermont now, with more to come soon. It is common knowledge that ten inches of snow are necessary for Ruffed Grouse to dive into and burrow under the snow in order to make an insulating nocturnal snow roost. With only five inches of snow, a grouse still seeks shelter, but somehow it knows not to dive into the snow from the air. Rather, it lands on the surface of the snow, and then walks along making a groove in the snow as it goes, until it decides to rest for the night.

Several such resting spots were apparent today at the base of trees — slight depressions fully exposed. The grouse that made the snow roost in this photograph shuffled through the snow and then scrunched down without breaking the surface of the snow where it settled for the night, so that it had an inch or two of snow over its body – hiding it from predators, if not providing much insulation. In the morning, after defecating, it departed, not bursting out of a snow bank as it would if there were a lot of snow, but instead lifting off in plain view, leaving faint wing prints on the surface of the snow.

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Wild Turkeys’ Struggle for Food Begins

wild turkey in snow121Wild Turkeys do not migrate. During the winter they often separate into three distinct groups — adult males (toms), young males (jakes) and females (hens) of all ages — and spend their days seeking out plant (90 percent of diet) and animal (10 percent of diet) matter. In the summer, greens and insects make up much of their diet; in the winter, Wild Turkeys rely heavily on acorns, beechnuts, crabapples and hawthorn fruit, as well as agricultural grains such as corn, buckwheat, soybeans and oats.

The winter survival of Wild Turkeys depends much more on snow conditions that impact the procuring of food than on the temperature. While research has shown that turkeys can tolerate very cold temperatures, they need adequate food to keep from losing significant body weight and eventually starving to death. In parts of northern New England, the current Nor’easter has dumped a large amount of deep, loose fluffy snow, which turkeys can’t walk on or dig through in order to reach nutritious nuts. For this reason, turkeys frequently seek out agricultural fields that are windblown and provide relatively easy access to grains.

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

11-27-14  HAPPY THANKSGIVING IMG_7637Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks. A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female. The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Wild Turkeys Mating

3-25-13 -wild turkeys mating P1040933The most prominent courtship behavior of male wild turkeys (toms) consists of two displays: gobbling and strutting. Both begin in late February in northern New England, before the females (hens) are receptive, but by late March the males begin to reap the fruits of their labor. The gobbling of the males attracts females or competing males over considerable distances. The tom turkey begins to “strut” only after a hen appears. While strutting, he fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward as he appears to glide around a female. If she is receptive, she assumes a “sexual crouch” on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for this photograph.)


Wild Turkey Sign

3-6-13 wild turkey-eaten burdock IMG_0691If you find clumps of empty burdock fruits lying on top of the snow, there may well be wild turkeys in the area. During the winter, especially when the snow pack is deep, wild turkeys feed on vegetation poking up above the surface of the snow, such as burdock seeds. There are tell-tail signs when turkeys have been eating burdock, even if no tracks are evident, because of the way in which they consume the seeds. Turkeys somehow pluck the burdock fruits off and then turn them inside-out, exposing the seeds which they then eat. Typically several of these empty fruits will be “velcroed” together, leaving small bunches of them scattered over the snow.