Ruffed grouse, masters of disguise

Finding an ovenbird nest is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Unless you follow this drably colored warbler to its domed, oven-like nest on the ground, you’ve got to be lucky.

As I pressed my luck a few days ago, I followed an ovenbird with binoculars as it moved along the forest floor.

Suddenly, a tiny black circle caught my eye. It was so inconspicuous, I barely noticed it. Instead, I dialed the focus wheel in and out to get a crisp image.

Hen ruffed grouse

There, not 20 feet away, sat a hen ruffed grouse. Her mottled brown body blended in perfectly with the leaf litter, but its eye gave her away.

I watched for a few minutes and every time the bird blinked or closed its eyes, it seemed to vanish. I had gotten lucky and found a ruffed grouse nest.

My quest for an ovenbird nest would have to wait. I watched for 10 minutes without approaching the nest. I didn’t want to risk flushing mom off the nest for fear she might abandon it.

If I had flushed the grouse, I would have found a simple depression lined with leaves and maybe a few feathers. If there had been pine trees nearby, pine needles may have also lined the nest.

Grouse are chicken-like forest birds and the nest would have contained nine to 12 buffy and perhaps mottled eggs. Incubation takes 21 to 24 days.

Hatching day

On hatching day, all the chicks emerge within a few hours of each other and as soon as their downy feathers dry, the precocial chicks follow the hen away from the nest. As they move, the chicks immediately begin eating insects, spiders and bits of vegetation.

The hen’s primary duties are to brood the chicks at night and during bad weather and protect them from predators.

In just two to three weeks, the young grouse will be making short flights.

Like killdeer and many other birds, hen grouse distract predators by feigning a broken wing. Her fearlessness approaches that of males that sometimes inexplicably confront hikers, wood cutters and even turkey hunters.

Just last week I came upon a defiant grouse on a gravel road. I had to get out of the car to get it to move.

Favorite example

My favorite example of grouse machismo arrived several years ago in a letter and a video from Brian Wheatcraft of Charleston, W.Va.

He described and filmed strange grouse behavior he and a friend, Matt Fleshman, had seen while turkey hunting. The video begins with a guy sitting on the edge of a trail, shotgun on his lap and a camo cap on his head.

A grouse approached on the ground and the guy reached out and touched the bird several times. Then it hopped onto the barrel of his shotgun!

No fear

Over the course of about 10 minutes of footage, four different people appear on camera. The grouse fears none. 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.

Toward the end of the video, the grouse follows/chases a woman and a teenage boy up and down the trail. If I hadn’t seen the video, I don’t know that I would have believed the story.

Another story

Last week another reader shared his grouse story — “We had a ruffed grouse around us for four years. I first made its acquaintance when cutting tile and making lots of noise; it watched from just two feet away. When I turned off the machine, he pecked at it. He never accepted our presence in his territory.

“He would stalk us when we were in yard or garden, slowly circling, biding his time and then would sneak up from behind and start flapping his wings against the back of our legs. He would chase our cars down driveway and had the bold habit of flying up from behind and then sliding down the windshield. When confronted, he would emit a low growl.”

Inexplicable

Such super-aggressive behavior is inexplicable, but it sure makes for interesting conversation.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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