A couple of months ago, while I was cutting the grass on the riding mower, I suddenly noticed a grouse running along the side of the fence, back and forth, parallel to me. I assumed he/she was protecting a nest, patrolling his/her territory and putting me on notice not to get any closer. Each time I mowed the lawn the ritual was repeated. Then a couple of times I noticed this same grouse running parallel to me, at the forest’s edge about ten feet away, during my daily backyard 5k run.
And then a month ago, while I was replacing the bulbs in some of our outdoor lights, I heard a rustling noise and a grouse (I did not know if it was the same one) appeared no more than a foot from me. As I worked, he/she got closer and closer, finally pecking at my ankles. I tried to shoo him/her away, but without success, and finally, after deciding I must be very close to (another?) nest, I gave up and went inside.
In August and early September, because it’s so dry here (and the property is too large to water), I don’t usually have to mow much, so I didn’t really miss our feathered visitor until Bob, the mason who has been repairing our chimneys, reported last week that a grouse had sat at his feet for two whole days as he worked, and seemed to take a liking to his scaffolding. Every once in awhile she (Bob is positive the grouse was female) would wander off, checking out his tools and supplies and even pecking at his power saw. She was so tame that Bob was convinced she was a family pet and I was just having him on by disavowing any knowledge of her.
The day Bob finished the job (Thursday) the grouse got bolder still, flying up and sitting on his shoulder and then later on top of his hat. That same day, as I was mowing, she followed me all around the yard, jumping in front of the mower and circling around it, retreating under the trees when I turned the mower around and then pouncing out again when I returned to cut the next swath. She followed me, for the first time, as I mowed the front yard, repeating the same behaviour. And Bob told me that as he was packing up and taking his tools down to his truck she ran alongside him with each trip, as if she knew he was not coming back and was urging him to stay. Bob’s my age and has worked outdoors all his life, and he says he has never seen anything like it — he was moved to tears by what appeared an obvious outpouring of affection from this strange little bird.
Yesterday I did some research to see if such behaviour is common. The ruffed grouse as a breed is supposedly pretty shy, though there have been several reports of astonishingly tame grouse, even some that sat on people’s laps and cooed and purred while they were stroked. This is the species that that piece-of-shit war criminal Cheney gets his jollies shooting full of excruciatingly painful (as the judge he shot will testify) buckshot for ‘sport’. Farmed grouse are raised just for assholes like Cheney to shoot — their one moment of freedom is when they are taken from their cages, sequestered in heavy thickets, and then ‘rousted’, only to be slaughtered at close range in their first seconds of flight.
So I asked myself: What would account for this strange, tame behaviour? I have only one hypothesis. The male ruffed grouse apparently attracts a mate by emitting a low, loud, sustained drumming noise. There is some controversy over how this is done, though one theory is that the male repeatedly beats its wings against its chest. Was our little visitor attracted by the sound of my riding mower, and Bob’s masonry saw, hearing these sounds as mating calls from two apparently single males? Or was she wise enough to know that we weren’t of her species (and hence not suitable mates), but surmised that perhaps males of other species also made low drumming noises to tell the world that they were alone, and searching for company? Was our grouse dancing with us in sympathetic response to what she saw as our species’ terrible loneliness, and gracing us with her company as a way of cheering us up?
When I started writing this article (I’m writing it outdoors at my standing-height desk inside our backyard dining tent), I was going to report sadly that this weekend she had seemingly gone, perhaps because the changing weather had caused her to refocus her attentions on preparations for winter (ruffed grouse don’t migrate). But then something caused me to turn around and there she was, peering at me from under cover of the edge of the forest, perhaps ten feet away. I rushed inside to get my camera and when I returned she was waiting for me. For the next fifteen minutes we danced, circling around each other cooing and clucking softly to each other as I took pictures so close that my camera couldn’t focus. Finally I sat down and gradually she came closer and closer, first jumping on my slipper and then climbing up my arm to my shoulder and jumping onto my head and pecking gently at my hair. When I tried to shake her off she seemed to take it as a game, rebalancing for a couple of minutes before finally jumping back down.
Just when I think I can’t be any more in awe of nature, an experience like this happens. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it all (and I would welcome readers’ advice — I’m inclined not to feed her or allow her to get too trusting of humans), but I suspect there will be further adventures to report (she’s watching me still as I write this, from the cover of the underbrush at the forest’s edge).
Sometimes we just don’t pay attention until it’s too late. And sometimes, we’re graced with another chance. I have stop writing — I can’t see the screen through my tears.
September 10, 2006
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