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BRAD DOKKEN COLUMN: Ruffed grouse eats garter snake and other tales

Hilary Stoltman of Thief River Falls shared this photo of a ruffed grouse his son, Steve, shot recently with a garter snake in its gullet. The back half of the snake still was hanging from the grouse's beak.1 / 2
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I'm not a bird expert, but I was reminded multiple times this past week of why I find them fascinating.

Hilary Stoltman of Thief River Falls shared a photo and tale of a ruffed grouse his son, Stephen, shot recently near Thorhult, Minn., that had a 14-inch garter snake in its gullet.

The snake was dead, but the back half of the reptile hung from the grouse’s beak, and the tail still had some reflex movement, the elder Stoltman said.

In more than seven decades as an outdoorsman, the octogenarian Stoltman says that's a first in his experience.

"They've got such a small gullet, and a 14-inch snake, there's no doubt in my mind that partridge would have died because he couldn't eat any more," Stoltman said, using the common northern Minnesota name for a ruffed grouse. "I don't know if he'd digest that a little at a time and keep swallowing it, I have no idea, but to me, it's just unbelievable."

Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said they get one or two reports each year of ruffed grouse eating snakes.

"I think it's possible, but that is one of the bigger ones," Dick said.

Stoltman's story triggered the memory of a similar encounter Sam Cook, recently retired as the outdoor writer for sister paper the Duluth News Tribune, wrote about several years ago.

As Cook reported in the Oct. 17, 2010, edition of the News Tribune, Duluth hunter Mark Jeronimus "shot a grouse that was in the act of eating a 22-inch garter snake."

"This ruffed grouse was having himself a 'l-o-n-g' lunch," the clever story headline read.

Jeronimus told Cook he thought the bird was regurgitating the snake and cited a 1953 University of Minnesota study he'd found in a Google search that mentioned grouse eating snakes.

As for Stoltman, this isn't the first time he has shared an unusual grouse hunting story. In October 2000, he told me about a grouse his son bagged after the bird flushed and flew into the gun barrel.

"The grouse exploded out of the brush and proceeded to fly right at the barrel of Stephen's 20 gauge shotgun," I wrote in the Oct. 8, 2000, edition of the Herald. "The impact of colliding with the gun barrel knocked the grouse senseless. Stephen was more than a little surprised, too."

Needless to say, there wasn't a pellet mark to be found.

Migration count

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology this week reported about 4 billion birds will migrate south from Canada through the U.S. this fall, with another 4.7 billion birds crossing the southern U.S. border into Mexico.

According to a news release from the Cornell Lab, researchers from the university used cloud computing and data from 143 weather radar stations across the U.S. to determine the estimate. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

"In the spring, 3.5 billion birds migrate back into the United States from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern United States border," lead author Adriaan Dokter, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab, said in the news release.

Heads or hail

Have you ever wondered how birds survive extreme weather events such as hailstorms?

In the case of Canada geese, at least, it appears they turn their heads skyward to reduce their profile and in some cases, perhaps even to watch for individual hailstones and try to avoid them.

So says Jeremy Ross, a University of Oklahoma biologist and bird expert, in a story on the science news website Live Science. Ross told Live Science that he observed the behavior in a video that Twitter user @Blitzs_Dad posted on the social media site of geese in Toronto.

I checked out the video on Twitter, and it sure looks to me as if the skyward-looking gaggle is trying to avoid the hail, too.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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