You would think a ruffed grouse would know better. After all, they are without doubt Maine’s most popular game bird. Just about every carnivore bigger than a shrew thinks they are tasty. A ruffed grouse should know enough to stay away from danger. So why is a grouse following Tyson McHatten around his Old Town yard?
The first encounter came while Tyson was raking leaves last autumn. He heard rustling nearby, and turned around to see a grouse in his pile. As the day progressed, Tyson burned the leaves, mowed the lawn, and finished up with some vigorous weed-whacking.
The grouse seemed totally unconcerned, often following Tyson around the yard, and occasionally charging at him. As Tyson relates the story, it was a half-hearted charge at best, usually as Tyson was walking away.
The grouse has returned to the yard several times since. Tyson even grabbed a couple of photos during a mid-January visit. The bird hasn’t been particularly aggressive in winter. He just struts around like he owns the place. Perhaps he does.
So, what is it with ruffed grouse in the Orono-Old Town area? An Orono friend sent photos of a grouse with his dog in the driveway a couple of years ago. The dog favored a particular sunny spot, and was reluctant to stir until the dinner bell rang.
When a grouse strutted out of the woods and walked around her, she was mildly curious but remained immobile. Sensing the dog was docile, the grouse often walked to within a foot of her. This went on every evening for more than two weeks.
About that same time, a second Orono friend reported a ruffed grouse in the driveway so tame that it would follow him into the garage. It would chase the car as it left the driveway. They would even engage in conversation, though the grouse did most of the talking.
Naturally, everyone wonders if this is normal. Well, yes and no. It’s noteworthy that the latter two encounters occurred in April, when the male ruffed grouse is defending a territory.
Most grouse species adopt the same breeding strategy. Males stake out a territory, and put on a display to attract the ladies. The character of the display differs by species. For instance, in Maine the ruffed grouse drums. The spruce grouse struts around and flutters up to branches.
A male grouse will mate with as many willing females as he can entice into his territory. It’s then up to the hens to raise the broods. Choosing an attractive territory is therefore very important, and a male grouse will defend it vigorously, driving off intruders when possible.
Deep in the woods, most males would probably surrender and slink off if a human approached. But if their territory is on the edge of the woods, grouse can become accustomed to having people nearby, especially in suburban areas where ruffed grouse can’t be hunted.
While I was camping at Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle a few years ago, there was one tent site that was off limits to campers because a grouse wouldn’t allow anyone on it.
I have seen only one sooty grouse in my life. This western bird was in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. Male sooty grouse are notorious for coming out along the roadside at dusk to strut their stuff, and sure enough, I spotted this one easily.
Unfortunately, he also spotted me. Without hesitation, he walked up and started pecking my leg. He was relentless. When I walked away, he followed. When I ran, he chased. My wife almost died laughing.
But what about Tyson McHatten’s ruffed grouse? This first encounter was in autumn, long after mating season. The reality is that once a male ruffed grouse has a favorite area, he seldom travels far from it for the rest of his life.
He is probably not actively courting, although I have heard ruffed grouse drumming in autumn a few times, and I have seen a spruce grouse displaying for a female in October, so they certainly have sex on their minds. The male remains interested in keeping rivals out of his territory in autumn, as young males disperse to establish their own territories.
A ruffed grouse typically defends a territory of up to 10 acres. That means that a grouse in the woods can easily consider your yard to be part of his domain. We’re about six weeks away from drumming season. I suspect Tyson will see his pugnacious grouse again very soon.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the town in which Tyson McHatten lives.