"I don't believe there's an ideal winter for wildlife, or even for a specific species of wildlife," says Greg Hoch, a biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The melt-freeze cycle we have seen this winter certainly is a problem, an issue for bird welfare and survival. That's particularly true for some of our game birds, he told me in a recent e-mail interview.

We've had snow followed by a warm-up and melt, then a hard freeze that puts an icy crust on everything.

"That heavy crust may be the worst issue," said Hoch. "It hampers snow roosting by some species."

Ruffed grouse roost in soft snow in the winter, when that's possible, simply plunge-diving in, gaining insulation from the cold and protection from predators.

Crusty snow means the grouse scrape out a shallow bed atop the snow, finding no protection from weather or from predators like hawks and owls.

"Also, species like prairie grouse and pheasants won't be able to scratch through an ice crust to get at seeds," Hoch said.