Thomas Felton of Kimbolton, Ohio, recently sent me some photos of a ruffed grouse he had been feeding twice a day since late November. He first noticed the grouse while walking with his grandson. Not wanting to disturb the bird, he backed away and continued along the trail.
At that point, “the grouse followed me like a puppy. Since then, I’ve gone into the woods twice a day to feed him. If I call to him, he comes to me. Have you any thoughts on this unusual behavior?”
Strange as this grouse may seem, the behavior does not surprise me. I’ve had similar encounters. Once I approached a displaying grouse on a forest road. I expected it to flush into the understory, but it didn’t. It watched me as I approached and even fanned its tail and strutted.
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, and then flew off the trail. Similarly, a West Virginia wildlife biologist once told me of a grouse displaying in the middle of a gravel road. He stopped his truck and got out to chase the grouse.
Instead, the bird flew into the cab and wouldn’t leave. 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.
So I’m not surprised that grouse can be surprisingly bold. Another friend, George, once told me about a grouse that chased and attacked him every time he rode his four-wheeler into the woods to cut firewood. The behavior began in July and lasted for several months. At first, the grouse just followed him into the woods. After a few weeks, the bird became a faithful, though increasingly aggressive, companion.
“When I was on the four-wheeler, it would trot along behind me,” George said. “If I went too fast for it to keep up, it would fly up from behind and smack my back or head. It really got to be annoying.”
When George stopped to cut firewood, the bird would just march around him in a circle.
No fear. As the fall hunting season approached, George feared for the bird’s future. So one day he used a butterfly net to catch the bird.
“I just wanted to spook it a bit,” George explained. “I told him to stay away or he’d end up on someone’s dinner table. When I released the bird, it flew off into a dense thicket. Five minutes later, though, he returned, circling round and round.”
“I grabbed the net and caught him again,” George said.
Once again George released the grouse, and once again it sailed into the woods. And five minutes later it returned, content to circle as George cut firewood.
The most impressive example of grouse machismo arrived several years ago in a package from Brian Wheatcraft of Charleston, West Virginia. He described and filmed strange grouse behavior he and a friend had observed while turkey hunting.
The video began 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! Over the course of about 10 minutes of footage, four different people appeared on camera. The grouse feared none.
It jumped on and off the gun barrel several times. It hopped from the barrel to the guy’s arm and across his shoulders. It pecked at his head and pulled off his cap. Toward the end of the video, the grouse followed and chased a woman and a teenage boy up and down the trail. If I hadn’t seen the video, I doubt that I would have believed the story.
Aggression in nature
Generally speaking, aggression is a good thing in nature. It separates the strong from the weak. But I fail to see any adaptive value in a grouse harassing people. And that’s why I love telling these tales.
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