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Ruffed Grouse Tracks

Most of PEI’s winter wildlife tracks come from mammals, but there are lots to be found from birds, too!  Ruffed Grouse is a great species for introducing bird tracks, so let’s take a look.


Photo 1: A 'snow angel' made by a Ruffed Grouse landing and walking away.

My favourite bird signs are the whole-body imprints that are most common following heavy snows like the one we had in early February. If you’re very lucky, you may come across one made by an Owl catching its prey, but those left by Ruffed Grouse are much more common (Photo 1).  Often, these photos show up on social media with erroneous captions such as “owl catches rabbit”.  In most cases – including the photo shown here – you can see the tracks don’t end at the body imprint, they start there; they don’t show prey tracks ended by an avian predator, but rather a bird that landed and walked away. In this case, the tracks show it was a Ruffed Grouse. 


Photo 2: A Ruffed Grouse track on PEI.

Bird feet come in five different configurations, and I’ll introduce you to these over the coming weeks. Ruffed Grouse has three long toes pointing forward and one short toe pointing back in what is called the ‘Game Bird arrangement’ (Photo 2). Only four PEI bird species have this toe arrangement, so it reduces the suspect pool from hundreds to just a handful.  Ruffed Grouse is the only one of our four game birds that’s native, and it leaves a track about 2.5 inches (6 centimetres) long. 


Photo 3: Pectination along the sides of Ruffed Grouse toes.

In fall, Ruffed Grouse grow fringes along the sides of their toes, called ‘pectination’ (Photo 3). This increases the surface area of the foot much like snowshoes do for us. If you get a really clear Ruffed Grouse track, you can see imprints from the pectination. These fringes are seasonal and will be lost in spring.


Photo 4: A nice Ruffed Grouse trail on PEI.

Just like the arrangement of toes on a bird’s foot tells you what group it is in, its gait tells you a bit about how it spends its life. Birds that spend a lot of time on the ground walk rather than hop. Ruffed Grouse leave a distinctive, walking trail and the space between the tracks tells you how fast it was going. Under dense cover, Grouse feel safe enough to walk slowly and there will be little space between tracks – the heel of one foot nearly touches the front toe of the one behind it.  In open areas, Grouse need to step up the pace or risk being eaten, and in Photo 4 you can see more space between the tracks. A nice Ruffed Grouse trail like this one shows the bird’s toe drag as well as the middle toe pointing towards the centre line of the trail. That middle toe also allows you to tell the bird’s left foot from its right.

 

Grouse use snow to their advantage, diving into it for cover on cold winter nights. In addition to insulating the Grouse from wind and cold, this also hides its scent from predators. This comes with a bit of risk during the up-and-down winter temperatures that are more common these days.  If a Grouse burrows into powdery snow which then gets covered by a layer of ice, the animal can get trapped. 

 

In the weeks following 2022’s Hurricane Fiona, I predicted the storm’s effects on our wildlife would be negative for some species, but positive for others, including Grouse (you can read more here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/post-fiona-wildlife). Correlation is not cause and effect, but I can say I am seeing many more Grouse around now than I was a few years ago.  They are a beautiful, tasty, and well-adapted part of PEI untamed!

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