GOOD BIRDING

When birds attack (Let the record show I can still outrun a grouse)

A dusky grouse
Bob Duchesne | Special to the BDN
A dusky grouse
Posted May 16, 2014, at 5:51 a.m.

This bird attacked me. From the photo, you can see the cold-blooded look in his eye. It’s an expression shared by Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Or, really, any of Clint’s movies.

Fortunately, this ruthless beast is not local. He is a dusky grouse, and this photo was taken in Colorado at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park last month. In fact, this bird was my reason to visit the park. I had never seen a dusky grouse before.

Apparently, he was getting weary of spectators. Let me paint the picture. There were three of us in the car. It was nearly nightfall — a time when dusky grouse were known to emerge from the tree line onto the park road in hopes of finding a compliant female.

When we saw him on the roadside, we pulled over and stopped at a respectful distance for an admiring glimpse. Though we were more than a hundred yards away, this grouse did not pause for a moment. He trotted up to the car and peered in the window at me, spoiling for a fight. Not recognizing his ill temper, I stepped out of the rear seat to offer my hand in friendship.

He attacked. He pecked at my leg. It felt like being gently poked by the eraser end of a pencil. When that failed, he tugged at my pant leg as though he was plucking the feathers from a rival. Perhaps that’s what he thought he was doing. Perhaps there was a female in the bushes next to us. By that point, we were chuckling, which only served to infuriate him more, and he redoubled his efforts at pecking my leg. I tried to walk away, but he followed. I ran. He pursued. Let the record show that I can still outrun a grouse at my advancing age, but only for short distances. He chased me along the road and up the hill until I was barely able to reach the car ahead of him. We drove off in convulsions of laughter.

This is not the first time I’ve been attacked by a grouse. Last year, I was leading a bunch of birders in Baxter State Park, and we stopped to examine a place that looked good for unusual woodpeckers. At one point, we stood and stared into the woods at suspicious tree markings. Suddenly, the bush at our feet exploded and out popped an angry spruce grouse hen. She had been frozen on her nest within touching distance. When we did not move along as quickly as she wished, she decided to drive us off and attacked our feet. We backed off quickly, lest she disable our shoelaces. More laughter.

Ruffed grouse have been known to fly at the face of hikers when they wander too close to their chicks. A few years ago, I camped in Aroostook State Park in advance of guiding for the park’s birding festival the following day. I was advised that I could take any unoccupied site, but there was one particular site I must avoid because a ruffed grouse was defending the territory and attacked anyone who ventured close.

Grouse attacks are merely funny. Tern attacks draw blood. Anyone who has banded chicks in a tern colony can explain the precautions necessary to keep one’s scalp intact. Tern bills are sharp and they are not shy to use them. In the mid-90s, I volunteered on one such project. All of the terns were nasty around their nests, but one common tern went so far as to harass us at our picnic table, away from the nest. The naturalists called him “Stinky,” probably because defecation bombardment is another defense readily employed by the terns. Cover your dinner.

Great horned owls also get testy as they begin the mating season in late winter, and they’ve been known to terrorize cross country skiers in Bangor City Forest.

Mute swans may be beautiful, but they have foul tempers. Wild turkeys have fowl tempers. Either can do damage in defense of a nest.

If you want to experience true fear, visit the nest of a northern goshawk. You won’t get close. Goshawks have a wingspan of nearly four feet, and they scream in your face as they come in for the kill, talons extended. They usually feint for the first couple of passes, but if you don’t take the warning and vacate immediately, the next attack will remove your toupee…if you’re wearing one.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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