Of the hundreds of columns I've written here over the past 12 years, none evoked more response than those about an amazingly friendly wild ruffed grouse I happened to meet back in the winter of 2008.
My friend, Bill Carter, first encountered the remarkable bird near the gate to his hunting camp in Huntingdon County during deer season that fall. Most days, the curious bird would literally come running when he heard Bill opening the gate.
Not only was this particular grouse apparently unafraid of humans, it actually seemed to enjoy human contact. That offered me one of the most unique opportunities of my career as an outdoor photographer, and I was able to take almost 2,000 amazing photos of that wonderful bird in every pose imaginable.
It became so familiar with Bill and I that some situations were simply comical. The bird would readily sit on Bill's arm and pose for photos. It also loved to perch on an open window of his truck and look at itself in a side mirror. I often lay on the ground to photograph the grouse as it walked around in front of me, but several times the mischievous bird circled behind me and snatched the knit cap off my head with its beak.
Shortly after I wrote about those encounters, I received emails and phone calls from a dozen or more folks who had a similar experience with a "friendly" wild grouse. That sparked me to do some further research on these game birds, and I discovered that such behavior is not uncommon in ruffed grouse. Usually those grouse that appear unafraid or somewhat tame around humans tend to be young males. Those birds are also often curious of and attracted to certain types machinery like trucks, ATVs or riding lawnmowers. The grouse at Bill's camp certainly exhibited all those traits.
I never figured I would have another opportunity to photograph a wild grouse at such close range until last Sunday morning when I traveled to Yellow Creek in Bedford County to fish for trout with some friends from Massachusetts. We had parked along a farm lane in an open meadow not far from the stream.
As we were rigging our rods, one of my friends said, "What kind of bird is that?" I knew there had been a pair of bald eagles sighted in this area recently, so I turned around almost expecting to see one of those magnificent birds soaring by. But to my surprise, walking in the grass just 3 or 4 feet from us was a beautiful male ruffed grouse.
"That's a ruffed grouse, the state bird of Pennsylvania," I replied.
My other fishing companion, who is also a hunter, quickly realized how unusual this situation was and chimed in, "I spent all of last October chasing those birds with my German shorthair, and down here they just walk up to you!" I assured him that grouse are just as challenging for bird hunters in Pennsylvania as they are in New England. Of course, I related a brief version of my encounter with the friendly grouse in Huntingdon County six years ago.
As I slowly circled around to my vehicle to grab my camera, I found it interesting this grouse was hanging out in rather open country with the nearest woods 30 or 40 yards away on the other side of the creek. The bird allowed us to get reasonably close to take a few photos but would then retreat into a large patch of multiflora rose and barberry after a bit. There were still a few bright red berries left on some of the barberry bushes. I know wild turkeys love those berries, so I assume grouse do as well, and perhaps that is what attracted this bird to that particular spot.
I would have been content to spend the morning photographing that grouse at close range, or at least as long as the bird would have allowed. But my friends had traveled a long way to catch some trout with me, so after each of us had taken a few close-ups of the curious grouse, we headed to the stream and left the bird resting under the briar bushes.
I hoped it would still be hanging around when we returned there at lunchtime, but that was not the case. In spite of that disappointment, I was still grateful to encounter a wild grouse that was willing to be a close-up model for me once again.