Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… wherever it will be this week, I will have to be on snowshoes, cross-country skis, or from the warmth of my car. We got two snow storms this week. The first left us a foot of snow, and the second one two days later is already trying to beat the first in the amount which it leaves. I am reminiscing about other snow storms and the birds and mammals that will have their first trials in surviving winter weather.

Two of the first birds that come to mind are some of the larger ones that may or may not visit your bird feeders. One is the Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) which seasonally grows a short fringe of feathers along its toes that allow it to walk on the top of the snow like it is wearing a pair of snowshoes, and the fringe feathers also provide extra insulation. This grouse is one of the most winter-adjustable birds in our northeast. At the age of about four months old, it will leave its brood and begin its new life on its own. The males of the brood are usually the first to leave because it is important for them to find a territory that is exclusively theirs and is necessary for them to attract a female grouse in the coming spring.

This quest may be difficult because it has to be an area with no other male grouse nearby, and it must have plenty of food to survive the long winter and appropriate drumming areas for him to attract a female. The male will perform his spring courtship ritual by standing on a log and beating his wings. These males may have to travel several miles to find that perfect site and a generous food source. In the fall, this may not be too difficult since acorns, berries, and mushrooms are plentiful. By late fall, the feathers on their beak will grow over their nostrils, allowing the cold air to warm up before it is inhaled. Ruffed grouse also have a unique way of staying warm in frigid temperatures, and it also provides concealment from predators. They dive into fluffy snow head first, and by leaving just a small hole and almost no sense, they can be fairly safe throughout the night. They conserve on their body heat, too, by staying in this cavity throughout the night, and in the morning, they explode out of the snow and begin a new day.

Another large bird that must spend its days finding food and shelter throughout our winter is the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). These turkeys don’t migrate, and our winters can be particularly challenging for them. They are able to withstand severe cold and are known to endure even the deep snow to keep them finding their food. In the winter, their main source of food is plant materials. They consume grasses and grains, which include corn, oats, and soybeans, in addition to berries, acorns, and other nuts. Their gizzard, the muscular portion of the stomach, is lined with ridges, and horny plates can be considered teeth and jaws. The turkey’s gizzard can grind even the hardest substances into digestible material. Researchers took some items that would normally take more than four hundred pounds of pressure (per square inch) to crush; then they fed similar items to turkeys, and within twenty-four hours, each item was totally crushed. Turkeys will sometimes eat small pebbles, grit or hard seeds, and even fruit pits to assist the grinding action within their gizzard. In spring, summer, and fall, the turkeys will include insects, small amphibians, and reptiles, including small lizards and snakes, in their diet.

The turkey is the heaviest member of the Galliformes order, which includes grouse, chicken, partridge, and pheasant. Like all Galliformes, turkeys are polygynous, which means that the males will mate with one or more females. However, the female will only mate with one male. After mating, the female will lay from ten to fourteen eggs, one per day. She will not begin incubating the eggs until she lays the last egg. The incubation period is about twenty-eight days. The nest is a shallow scratched-out spot under a tree trunk or within a brush pile. She may line the nest with dried leaves. The hatchling is precocial, meaning that they are covered with down, they are mobile, and they follow the hen around while she shows them what is edible. The males do not participate in the incubating or rearing of the poults (chicks or babies). The hen will protect the poults and cover them with her body, wings, and tail until they are big enough to fly up to the roost for the night. The poults are able to fly within two to three weeks after hatching. Although they will generally run when confronted, they can fly, escaping harm when necessary.

The poults will spend their first weeks and their first summer feeding and growing rapidly. They can travel a mile or two daily in search of food. Wild turkeys prefer hardwood or a mixed conifer-hardwood forest, including oak, beech, black cherry, and other nut-bearing trees. They also like a habitat that has meadows, orchards, agricultural fields, and marshes. Numerous predators eat turkey eggs, such as raccoons, opossums, skunks, and foxes. As poults, snakes, especially rat snakes, eagles, barred owls and several species of hawks deplete their numbers. Coyotes, bobcats, black bears, great horned owls, and both red and gray foxes are the predators of both poults and adults. The toms (male) turkeys may be aggressive when necessary in self-defense and will kick with their legs, using the spurs as a weapon in addition to biting and ramming. The hen (female) will similarly defend her poults.

The wild turkey almost became our national bird. Benjamin Franklin was the promoter of this colorful fowl with its red, white, and blue head. Unfortunately for the wild turkey, it lost by one congressional vote; or you might possibly be eating Bald Eagle for your Thanksgiving Meal.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at