One of the challenges of winter life in many parts of the country is periodic storms that bring precipitation in the form of freezing rain and ice. It makes for dangerous driving and walking conditions. We live in Minnesota and thankfully see fewer ice storms than states to the south, but inevitably ice will form on our walkways, decks and roads from the melting snow and subsequent refreezing. There are different forms of ‘deicers’ that one can buy – usually a type of salt that is not great when it comes to protecting the environment. On the roads it’s a mix of salt and sand that is laid down.

Last year a neighbor suggested we try using ‘chicken grit’ instead. It has the added bonus of not melting away between snowstorms. I’m not sure why we didn’t think of that earlier, but since we started using it we discovered an added bonus for ‘our’ birds.

It started when we observed a few Mourning Doves visiting a planter that I did not put away last fall. It is located beneath the kitchen window and is protected from the elements, so there is no snow covering the dirt. The doves were landing and pecking at the dirt and we realized they were looking for ‘grit’. The definition of the word is, “hard, abrasive articles, as of sand, or gravel.”, also “a coarse-grained siliceous rock usually with sharp angular grains”.

Because they do not have teeth to grind up their food, birds have an organ known as the gizzard which is used for

These Pine Grosbeaks are  taking grit from the roadside to help them digest their food

These Pine Grosbeaks are taking grit from the roadside to help them digest their food

that purpose. It is a muscular part of the stomach and through a grinding action with regular, rotary and rhythmic contractions breaks down the hard food material. It is best developed in birds that eat seeds, grains leaves, plant roots and stems, grass, twigs, buds, etc. That would include the finches, some doves and gallinaceous birds (turkeys, pheasants, etc.). Once snow covers the ground, these birds have a hard time finding grit. That is why often, after a snowstorm when the roads have been plowed, exposing some grass and dirt on the edge, you will see flocks of small birds, or Wild Turkeys pecking along the edge.

There are different degrees (sizes) of grit available, based on the size of the bird you are feeding. At the Co-op Feed Store, we chose the smallest (size 1) because the birds we are feeding are as small or smaller than a chicken or turkey chick. It is also a good size to spread on our deck to help prevent us from slipping. These gizzard ‘stones’ are used over and over causing them to round and eventually they are excreted as gastroliths. Bird’s dinosaur ancestors also had gizzards and their gastroliths are fossils now and much larger than any bird but an ostrich could ingest. One day last week we were treated to a large flock of American Goldfinches, with a few Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins mixed in. They swarmed over the platform feeder with its wild bird seed and then they flew down to the deck where they could find lots of fine grit.

Now we have found yet another way we can help out the birds during the winter months. Life is difficult enough for them in our long winters. It makes me think of the other definition of ‘grit’ – “indomitable spirit; pluck”. Can you think of a better way to describe our winter birds?

By Kate Crowley