While tramping along a land trust trail in western Maine in early December, I encouraged my four young companions and their mom to check under a large granite boulder for signs of mammal or bird activity in a miniature cave. As they looked, I told them that the only critters I’d ever witnessed there were two ruffed grouse that flew off as I approached. I assumed I’d interrupted their mating ritual behind the rock.
Finding no signs of any recent activity, we stepped back toward the trail when a sudden movement caught our attention. It was a ruffed grouse overturning leaves and foraging for buds. The six of us stood as still as possible, our eyes wide with awe.
We were still for maybe 5 or 10 minutes, then we began to fidget and talk softly about the bird at our feet. It seemed not to mind our presence or when one of the youngsters started to follow it and knelt beside a downed branch as the grouse climbed up it.
The next day, I returned to the trail on a mission to study some twigs and buds. Standing beside a gray birch sapling, I heard the sound of leaves cracking, and what to my wondering eyes should appear? The same bird.
The curious thing: Each time I moved, the bird followed, staying about 10 feet away as I tramped on. I stopped. Frequently. So did the bird.
We began to chat. I spoke quietly to him (I’m making a gender assumption), and he murmured back sweet nothings.
It was then that I did the unthinkable — I named him: ArGee. (R: Ruffed; G: Grouse).
On a third trip to the trail, I dragged my husband along, but much to our dismay, no ArGee. I’d been blessed twice and had to accept the possibility that he’d either flown off or become part of the food chain.
A week or so later, after 6 inches of snow blanketed the ground and the temperature dipped to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, I once again wandered into ArGee’s territory. As I looked up at the red blooms of a staghorn sumac tree, I heard a slight noise by my feet and greeted ArGee with a quiet “hello.” We shared the space, mindful of each other, and eventually he headed under a stand of hemlocks.
Branches snapped and crackled as I bushwhacked to his location. All the while I wondered if I was getting too close.
What I discovered was that he’d stopped foraging. He stood still with an occasional turn of his head, and puffed up his dappled and barred plumage, turning into a football of sorts as he fluffed up his feathers to trap warmer air. A bird’s body heat warms the air between its feathers. The more trapped air, the warmer the bird. After all, ArGee didn’t have the luxury of hand warmers and a winter jacket like I did.
I stood nearby and watched, occasionally offering a quiet comment, which he considered with apparent nonchalance. My admiration fell upon his crest feathers, bead-like eye ring and the contrasting orientation of the comb-like feather tips spread out like miniature fans below and above his dark eyes.
Then there were his feet to consider. A ruffed grouse must travel atop deep snow with the help of “snowshoes” — lateral extensions of its toes. I could see the comb-like rows of bristles, aka pectinations. They reminded me of a centipede serving as each toe.
He also had stout legs, covered with insulating feathers that looked like an old pair of furry sweatpants.
Warmed up at last, ArGee returned to his original chicken-like form and again searched for food. His robust downturned beak was adapted for coarse vegetation like buds and seeds of aspen, birch and cherry trees, and that was the nature of the community in which he had made himself at home.
Grouse have a special internal adaptation that’s most helpful in the winter. They store food in their crops (esophagus) until later. Then, within their bodies are two offshoots of their intestines, called caeca, which grow enormous each autumn and allow them to break down cellulose so they can get nourishment from those woody buds. Come spring, the caeca atrophy for the warmer months.
As ArGee and I moved along the trail, I watched the proximity of his foot placement, which gave me a better understanding of the track patterns that he and his kin leave behind. At times he paused and moved slowly, thus his feet where closer together. Other times he marched or ran, creating some distance between his prints.
For a while longer, ArGee and I played “I See You,” and I continued to wonder about his behavior. Usually ruffed grouse are quite elusive and difficult to approach. In fact, I’m often startled by the loud wingbeat of ruffed grouse as they explode — or so it sounds — from the ground or snow in front of me. My heart responds with rapid beats for a second, certain I’m about to encounter a moose — and then I realize it was just a ruffed grouse trying to avoid me.
Eventually, I reached out to Doug Hitchcox, a Maine Audubon staff naturalist, who thought this behavior was a throwback to how ruffed grouse previously acted before they were hunted prolifically. They were known as the “fool hens” because they sought human companionship; that is, until hunters made them wary and they had to learn tricks to escape.
Sometimes the critters with whom we share this natural world do things that make no sense. I’m grateful ArGee was one of them and that friends and I had the opportunity to tramp with him on several occasions.
Leigh Macmillen Hayes is a Maine Master Naturalist, freelance writer and education director for Greater Lovell Land Trust. She enjoys wandering and wondering in the woods of western Maine, photographing and sketching what she sees, and writing about her experiences. Visit her blog about nature at wondermyway.com.