Birds that stay for winter are a hardy lot

MARQUETTE – Many birds fly south for the winter, but in the case of this seemingly never-ending cold season, species that stick around are presented with challenges.

Two of those species, the wild turkey and the ruffed grouse, handle the cold weather differently, with one bird having it much easier than the other.

Both are upland game species. The ruffed grouse seasons run Sept. 15 to Nov. 14 and Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. The spring turkey season is April 21 to May 31 (for the Upper Peninsula, with other various season dates downstate) while the fall turkey season is Sept. 15 to Nov. 14.

Monica Joseph, wildlife biologist with the Crystal Falls office of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said, “Turkey and grouse are very different things up here.”

Wild turkeys, Joseph explained, require supplemental feeding in the U.P. because the snow gets so deep they can’t get to food sources. To help turkeys get through winter, Joseph said sportsmen’s groups and individuals conduct feeding programs, which allows them to survive in tougher areas.

Turkeys also can find food near agricultural and livestock operations, she said.

What can affect turkeys, Joseph pointed out, is if people cut back on feeding because of the price of food. However, there have been no reports of bunches of dead turkeys, so Joseph said apparently they’re continuing to feed.

“You don’t see many people people feed them, and then in mid-winter, yank the feed,” she said.

The south central part of the U.P., according to Joseph, still is the turkeys’ stronghold.

“Only periodically do snows get so bad it sets them back,” she said.

Grouse, on the other hand, have it a bit easier.

“Snow is good for them because they snow-roost,” Joseph explained, meaning the birds dive into snow, which insulates them, and they roost.

Snow-roosting, she said, is easy in the kind of light, fluffy snow the U.P. has seen lately.

“A difficult winter isn’t a limiting factor for them,” Joseph said. “They’re more driven now by their 10-year cycle.”

Joseph said there is no complete answer as to why grouse populations fluctuate this way. Possibilities, she said, include tree buds that exude a toxin, parasites and predator/prey cycles.

All these things have some part to play, Joseph said, but there’s no one thing that can be pinned down to explain the cycle, which now is on a downward trend.

“There are things we suspect,” she said, “but we don’t know the answer to that.”

Joseph said the DNR keeps track of turkey populations through “trend-type” censuses. Grouse populations are determined, she said, through spring male drumming counts and harvest surveys.

Turkeys’ existence in the U.P. doesn’t seem to be having an impact on grouse, but it depends with whom you speak.

“There were concerns turkeys would eat grouse eggs, or sometimes compete for the same food source,” Joseph said. However, she said the DNR has found no indication that is happening.

Bruce Wojcik, director of field operations for the Ruffed Grouse Society, said wild turkeys destroy grouse ground nests.

“People who hunt and love grouse do not care for the wild turkey whatsoever,” Wojcik said.

If good habitat, though, is created for grouse, then nests can be hidden and the two species can co-exist, he said.

Ruffed grouse also are more resilient than turkeys when it comes to living in the U.P.

“They can deal with heavy snow,” Wojcik said. “They just live underneath it.”

Wojcik said the RGS helps the DNR with various grouse projects, including grouse hunter trails that are found mostly in the central and eastern parts of the U.P. but are being expanded to areas in the northern Lower Peninsula.

These trails, Wojcik pointed out, accommodate all types of hunters.

“We have people who routinely go in there with a cane or crutch,” he said.

And once on a trail, they can get off a shot without having to leave it.

The RGS helps grouse in other ways, Wojcik said. For instance, its Mid U.P. Chapter will partner with the DNR in planting fruit-bearing shrubs for grouse.

Turkeys are getting help as well. Brandon Braden, Ironwood-based U.P. cooperative biologist with the Michigan Wild Turkey Federation, said he’s working to help improve the quality of habitat for turkey poults in the summer in the Ottawa National Forest.

Braden acknowledged deep snow makes it tougher for turkeys to get by, but they can survive. He said he also believes the effect of grouse on turkeys, if any, is small, with turkeys preferring mature forests and grouse attracted to young forests.

“There’s minimal habitat overlap,” Braden said.

What effect the harsh weather has had on turkeys is yet to be seen, he said, because there’s still a lot of snow in the woods, but there’s little to worry about regarding grouse, which makes them an exception in this particularly harsh season.

“Outside of grouse,” Braden said, “there’s probably not an animal out there that’s not struggling.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.