The Gregarious Grouse
By David Minton
Any upland bird hunter will tell you that the Ruffed Grouse, aka partridge here in New England, is one of the hardest upland game birds to hunt. It can fly through the densest woods and conifer forests, takes off when the hunter is least ready to make a shot (stepping over a log or bending to go under a branch) and is so fast off the ground that most often the hunter just has leaves falling from a tree to show where his shot went. That’s been my story many, many times.
But this November I had a different experience with a grouse, which, as I write this, is still ongoing as of Wednesday, November 30th.
A few days before Thanksgiving while deer hunting from a tree stand in my backwoods, I noticed several times a grouse hanging around within 10 to 20 feet of my stand while I was in it. When I got out of the stand to walk up the hill to my house, it would be just 10 feet off in the woods watching me. I know how they can hold tight so I didn’t give it much thought. However, the next day while in the stand about 12 feet up, the bird walked under my tree and hopped into a hemlock that stood a foot from my tree. My stand actually had the hemlock’s branches surrounding me. Then it slowly, over the next 10 minutes, made its way up to my level where it sat and watched me while sitting on a branch literally a foot and a half from me. The bird would hop from branch to branch, sometimes on my right side and sit. Then it would hop to the other side and onto a different branch and sit. All the time not more than a foot to a foot and a half from me. So I did what any normal hunter would do… I talked to it. This went on for an hour and a half. Often it just sat on the same branch for 15 minutes. Finally, I climbed down from the stand and walked to a stump to sit. It followed me and proceeded to hop up onto the stump and sat 6 inches from me. It was emitting a sound, a cross between a “cooing” and what I can only describe as a quiet whining. I really couldn’t tell if it was a threatening sound or a comforting sound.
After some more time, as it was getting dark, I walked up the tote road to my house and it followed me the entire way. I’d walk 20 feet, turn and pat my leg and say,”Come on, Buddy” and it would run the 20 feet to catch up to me. We did this for 600 feet till I got to my barn. As I have bird dogs (English Setters) I didn’t want to have it continue into my yard so I told it I had to go and turned and went in the house.
This situation continued for the next 3 days. I didn’t go down there on Thanksgiving Day so I don’t know if it was around. But the following day it showed up in the morning (2 hours) and again in the afternoon and spent 2-3 hours with me in the tree a foot from where I sat. The most interesting thing was the time, the day after Thanksgiving; I was in the stand with the bird next to me. I texted my son to bring down his 4 year old daughter so she could see the grouse in the tree sitting with me. As they quietly made their way down the path and within 10 feet from my tree, I could tell the grouse was becoming agitated. It turned, again only 2 feet from me; walked down the branch he was on and flew off away from my son and his daughter. That was the first time I got a clean look at the end of its tail feathers as it had spread them as it took off and landed, I saw what looked like a solid black band across the end of its tail feather, so I’m going to say this bird was a male.
Anyway, I said to my son, “Well, I guess that’s it” and they turned to walk back up the path to the house. Amazingly, within one minute of them heading back up to the house, the bird returned and hopped up the 6 branches to sit next to me again. And this time I thought I’d see if I could get it to hop onto my knee. Well, it took a little coaxing but after a few minutes, it did just that. It’s one of the many pictures and videos I sent to Paul Reynolds, the Editor, to verify my account of what I was witnessing.
There was the late morning after two hours in the stand with the bird that I got down to try still hunting for deer. It followed me for several hundred feet and I said to myself, well, I guess I’m spending the entire morning with you.
All of this took place over 6 days, everyday, in the morning and late afternoon and continues as I write this. If I get out of the stand and go to sit on a stump, it follows me and sits with me on the stump or at my feet. If I take a short walk to the lower field, it trots along behind me until I sit and then it comes on up next to me.
Now, I have heard of grouse hanging around people and of grouse pecking at people’s legs, shoes, and hats and being territorial. Of this behavior I read that there are two theories; the first was that these birds were a genetic throwback to grouse in pre-European settlement days. They were called fool hens because they were so easy to kill by knocking them out of a tree with a stone or stick. The modern day grouse has become educated after generations into having a fear of humans and thus are wilder today.
The other theory, which I tend to believe, is that the grouse are not tame but very territorial and are defending their home territory. If you reach out for it, it will try to attack you by pecking at your hand, feet, whatever.
What’s interesting is that this guy does not do that. Oh, a couple of times as I shook my camo- colored boot in front of it while sitting on the stump, it did peck at it. But for the most part, sitting in the tree, we just hang together. I have now had it sit on my knee four times…again videos sent to Paul. And it has followed me to my house at the end of the day four times…I left the dogs inside.
Needless to say, I am not getting any deer hunting done when I go down to my stand. But that’s okay as I took an elk out in Colorado this past October so the freezer is full. And I can’t explain it, but I have taken a liking to just chillin’ with this little fella, watching a few does a hundred feet away milling around and just enjoying our time together. My new friend gives me that look as if to say, “Well, what’s on the agenda today?”
So we sit and I talk to this wild bird…and my wife thinks I’m going nuts.
David Minton lives in Warner, New Hampshire
For more articles about hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, be sure to subscribe to the Northwoods Sporting Journal.