It was a cold late-February afternoon when I came across this greater prairie chicken peering out of the snow in northwestern Minnesota. I had watched a flock of chickens fly out to feed from this spot, and I was wondering how they had hidden so well in plain sight. Walking to the spot from which they’d flushed, I was surprised to see one left looking at me.
Living in a landscape covered in snow and intense cold for up to five months requires some adaptations that are unique to the bird world. People always wonder how grouse not only survive but thrive in such a hostile landscape. The answer is simple: They live under it. As soon as snow is deep enough for birds to roost in, all species of grouse will spend as many as 23 hours a day in snow caves. The snow insulates them from the harsh temperatures outside. The air may be -40° to -50° without the wind chill, whereas beneath the snow the temperature is closer to 32°. The grouse do not reuse their caves but rather make new ones each day. Birds actually will land and dive right in the snow and then tunnel several feet to the side. A predator may find the hole, and as it is trying to figure out where the bird is, the grouse can escape several feet away to live another day.