The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Friday, June 06, 2003

Interactions with Ruffed Grouse
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

Living on the same planet with other animals, we have interactions which can be amusing, horrifying or exciting for us and the "other-bloods," as one writer once called them. We hear about raccons in the chimney, opossums in the laundry, bears in the kitchen and rattlesnakes under the hood -- even car/deer encounters where the poor animal ends up in the front seat beside the driver. On the friendly side, there are pet fawns, rehabilitated hawks and wolves crossed with German shepherds.

One example of the thrilling kind occurred to my wife Sharron and me in northern Michigan. It may not have been so for the creature. We had just bought our summer place, a woods on a river, and were enjoying sitting outside in the clearing among the big trees, reading and waiting for the scattered birdseed to attract something. We looked up from our books when a Ruffed Grouse stepped out of the shadows and circled us, pecking at the feed. This is a much-desired game bird not usually pigeon-like in an affinity for human companionship. Its circles about us grew tighter, and I must admit that the hair on the back of my neck began to rise. It was an eerie encounter. `We stopped breathing, frozen in wonder. Suddenly, my wife's eyes opened wider. There was good reason, because the bird had hopped to the back of her lawn chair. You know those times when you say, "If I'd only had a camera" --- well, I did, and I snapped the bird and the wife, both looking surprised. I know we thought that this must be a pet, but who keeps a pet grouse? They don't sing like canaries, and they don't talk like parrots. But they are delicious, I hear.

After a few minutes, the bird dropped off the chair, fed a bit more and then strolled casually into the woods. We were dazed. The next day we were still talking about it when the bird returned. This time Sharron held out some seed, and the grouse accepted it from her hand. Every day, we were treated to the same experience. We tried bunchberries, a `grouse favorite. They were a big hit. Then. after a few weeks, the bird disappeared.

We were concerned that tameness had softened its natural wildness and caution and that some predator had taken it. I wrote the state's number one expert on galliformes (chicken-like birds) describing the behavior. His reply indicated that grouse do indeed respond to chainsaws and other small motor sounds, even approaching lumbermen at their work in the big timber, because what they hear approximates the mating season drumming for which this species is known. The thrumming noise of their wingbeats is quite dramatic, beginning slowly and so low in pitch that you feel it first in your chest, the tempo building in a crescendo as its wings go faster and faster. This fails to explain why were visited in the clearing that first time.

We were relieved when Ruff returned after two weeks. The rest of that magical summer many of our guests were also able to feed the bird, and a neighbor boy told us he had been driving his motorbike down the road when a grouse flew out of the trees and landed on his handlebars! We were not the only friends it had.

When fall came, we reluctantly had to return to our home downstate. The next summer no grouse appeared. We did not like to think of what may have happened to a creature which had lost its natural fear of people.

We still delight in hearing their drumming, and one even performed on our front deck. On the other hand, we do not delight in a habit they have of eating fermented berries and launching suicide flights into our vehicle windows. Their top speed is rocket velocity. Once we returned home to find my studio window shattered, glass shards on the floor and embedded in a candle across the room. There were nicks in the ceiling caused by the grouse which now lay dead under a table. Both cats were hiding in the bedroom -- under the bed. My carving chair was right in front of that window; I often quiver to think what might have happened to the back of my head if I had been home working. I can see the headline: "Bird Carver Decapitated by Bird."

Interaction can be dangerous.

One summer over 25 years after the Ruff experience, whenever my wife drove the garden tractor out to the road to pick up the mail, a grouse would dash out of the woods, run alongside and peck at the tires. This one would not be fed, but like many of the creatures in our woods, it reminded us that there are "other-bloods" who live there, too.

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