A winter cold and wet
By Jim Poling Sr.
My first glimpse of the bird has my mouth watering. It looks plump and juicy and I imagine it sitting in a roast pan, plucked and sprinkled with rosemary needles and a touch of garlic powder.
A closer look tells me its plumpness is merely feathers puffed out from nervousness over spotting my presence. It actually is a skinny little bird, weak from starvation as it huddles beneath the icy rain-draped lower branches of a young balsam.
My thoughts of it as a savoury meal immediately turn to sadness and shame.
It is a young partridge, perhaps not yet a year old. Or, to be technically correct, it is a young ruffed grouse, which are mistakenly called partridge in some places, notably in Northwestern Ontario where I grew up. The only partridge we have in Canada is the imported Hungarian partridge, a different bird altogether.
The name doesn’t matter. It is a sick bird and a grim reminder of how changing climate is changing nature’s balance.
It is not as dramatic a reminder as the one billion animals estimated to have perished in Australia’s wild fires. But a reminder still.
Abnormal summer heat and arid conditions sparked the wild fires that have ravaged Australia’s wildlife.
A moody winter of madcap temperature swings, ice pellets and freezing rain are what has weakened this little grouse, and likely others.
Temperatures this winter have been all over the Celsius or Fahrenheit or whatever scale you depend upon. One morning last week dawned at -25°C. The very next dawn brought 2°C.
Erratic precipitation hasn’t been helpful either. It rained, at least a trace, on 21 days between Nov. 1 and the first two weeks of January. The weekend just passed saw almost two inches of rain fall on parts of Haliburton County.
And, there has been little blanketing snow, which provides winter protection for some forest critters. There have been numerous days of snow flurries and short-lived squalls but no days of heavy snowfalls.
The little grouse that I have come across has spent much of the winter cold and wet. Chilly dankness isn’t good for any living thing with a set of lungs.
In a more normal winter, the grouse would find warmth, and protection from predators, by burrowing in deep and fluffy snow. That type of snow is their friend and does not restrict their ground travel because each fall they grow pectinations, fleshy bristles that act like snowshoes to help them walk across snow.
They certainly don’t need snowshoes this winter. Snow in many places has been only a few inches deep and hard and icy.
The current situation of little snow, icy rain and winds force the birds into thick conifer cover where they lose weight and perhaps starve or freeze. When they do venture out to find food, their weakened condition makes them easy prey for raptors, foxes and coyotes.
Not a pleasant scenario for a bird species already in decline in Ontario, and especially in northeastern states like Pennsylvania and New York, which estimates grouse populations are down 80 per cent since the 1960s.
Grouse are an important game bird, providing enjoyable recreational hunting opportunities, which in turn provides revenue for hunting-related industries and for government programs.
They are an important part of food chains, feeding on plants and insects while providing food for predatory birds and other animals.
They are an icon of our uplands. Their quick, sharp-turned flights and their spring drumming and elaborate courtship dances can’t help but intensify our fascination with nature.
I hope this little bird survives until spring when it can find a mate and produce some offspring that will in turn help rebuild grouse populations.
There is a chance it will. Daylight hours are getting longer and stronger and some late winter warm sun will encourage shrubs and trees to begin sprouting the buds and catkins that grouse love and need to survive.
The experts forecast that global temperatures will continue to rise, creating more winters like this one. If they are correct, we need to start figuring out how changed winters will affect our grouse and other wildlife and what we as individuals can do to help ensure their populations always are stable and healthy.