One morning this week, I could see winter at the end of the tunnel. A heavy crust of ice covered the windshield, the temperature had plunged to 25 degrees, and I could see my breath as I walked a familiar trail. About 50 yards ahead, a ruffed grouse dashed across the path.
Most grouse I encounter in the woods scurry into the underbrush or flush into the understory of the woods. This one didn't. It watched me as I approached and even fanned its tail half-heartedly. I advanced slowly. When I got to within 15 feet, I stopped and stared the bird down. It returned my gaze for a few seconds, then prudently flew off the trail into the branches of a distant oak.
Such close encounters with ruffed grouse are unusual, but not rare. Certain individuals remain aggressive and territorial all year long. Though drumming peaks in the spring, males have been recorded drumming during every month. I wasn't shocked by this bird's boldness. In fact, it reminded me of a column I wrote five years ago. Every time a friend drove his four-wheeler into the woods to cut firewood, a grouse chased and even attacked him. At the time I asked readers for other accounts of aggressive grouse, and I received quite a few. The best was a video that documented an amazing encounter.
Brian Wheatcraft of Charleston, W.Va., wrote that a friend, Matt Fleshman, had reported strange grouse behavior while turkey hunting. "I had to see this for myself," he wrote, "so we packed up the video camera and recorded this grouse."
My grouse encounter reminded me of the video, so I pulled it out and watched it again - in total amazement. The video begins with a guy, presumably Fleshman, sitting on the edge of a trail with shotgun on his lap and a camo cap on his head. A ruffed grouse approaches on the ground and the man reaches out and touches the bird several times. Then it hops onto the barrel of his shotgun. What an image!
Over the course of about 10 minutes of footage, four people appear on camera. The grouse accepts them all. It jumps on and off the gun barrel several times. It hops from the barrel, to a guy's arm, crosses his shoulders, pecks at his head, and pulls off his cap. At one point, I can hear the guy say to the grouse, "Get out of my face." Toward the end of the video, the grouse follows/chases a women and a teenage boy up and down the trail.
At the end of Wheatcraft's letter, he added a P.S.: "If you want to see the grouse in person, it can be arranged." That was five years ago and now I wish I had accepted the invitation.
Tough to explain
I'd like to explain this grouse's peculiar behavior, but I can't. Under most circumstances, individuals that fearlessly approach larger predatory species suffer lethal consequences, so clearly such behavior is not adaptive.
But there's another interesting grouse behavior that is clearly beneficial and more easily observed. Grouse often sit tight and allow intruders to approach closely. So when least expected, the ground just ahead of a predator or an inattentive hiker can explode in a twister of scattered leaves and a whirring of wings.
The flush of a grouse is startling enough when expected. If it comes when your mind is wandering, however, it can be frightening, if only for a few seconds. For the grouse, though, those few seconds spell the difference between life and death. Those few moments of shock and confusion are all a grouse needs to escape a predator or hunter.
Camouflage is the secret to the grouse's ability to sit tight. Their mottled gray, brown or reddish tones blend in perfectly with the forest floor. I can't recall that I've ever spotted a grouse on the ground before it flushed.
If you have a story of unusual animal behavior, or better yet, a video I'd love to hear/see it.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway @aol.com.