February 12, 2015

Snow Roosting And Banking

Evidence of a grouse snow roost site complete with scat.
Photo credit: Mary Holland

Winter's blanket has descended on south western Nova Scotia. Everything has been tucked in until the next thaw, which won't be here for a while. Before the next big melt I am learning from my forest friends and using the snow to keep warm.

Deep snow completely alters the landscape. The insulating value of a deep snow pack affords excellent protection against the elements for many creatures. Above the snow everything is quiet and crispy cold.

Under the snow, conditions are decidedly more toasty with the temperature in a squirrel snow shelter warming to several degrees above zero.

While out snowshoeing in our woods, I see evidence of how creatures use the snow to get away from bitterly cold weather. My favourite is the grouse which flies from a tree and plunges headfirst into the snow to form an instantly insulating snow cave; sometimes they also burrow a way under the snow.

The practice is called "snow roosting" and often nothing can be seen on the surface. Here in their warm hidey holes the birds can shelter in comfort for up to three or four days... or until I come hiking along.

When I am just about on top of them, they burst out of their cozy roost in a shower of insulating ice crystals, and fly away.

The wind banked most of the snow at the back of our house. I did the rest of the perimeter
with a snow shovel and elbow grease.

I thought I would indulge in a little grouse wisdom and put the insulating properties of snow to work for me around my own cozy roost. I did what is know in human circles as "snow banking".

Whether on native shelters thousands of winters ago, or my home today, piling snow up against the foundation/walls of a dwelling provides a similar thermal advantage as the grouse get while buried in the forest drifts.

For every inch of snow you pile against your foundation and wall, you gain an R-value of 1 or more. If you have any air leaks the snow will also help minimize them. That's the kind of stuff that conserves resources and saves money.

Snow banking may not be advised for homes with basements prone to leaking. But banking can be done with other natural materials like straw bales. Linda's mom remembers when she was small and helping bank her family's Nova Scotia home foundation with sand every fall. There is a home down the highway from us that has the foundation banked with spruce boughs.

The snow and other natural materials are free, 100% non-toxic and biodegradable insulation. And they work.

Just ask the grouse when it pops out from under its blanket of snow.


  1. A friend of ours has just gone on a 4 day expedition in Scotland...they are hoping to dig and sleep in snow holes...taking roosting to a whole new level!

    1. Charlotte,

      I am surprised there is enough snow over there for snow caves - awesome! A snuggly snow cave can make the difference between life and death. Just like for the grouse and other winter animals.

      I asked a friend once if he wanted to go winter camping. He said that he would rather sleep in his chest freezer in the basement. I, however, love the challenge of winter camping.


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