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Remembering close encounters with friendly grouse

A few days ago, while doing some research on the Pennsylvania Game Commission website, I clicked on a link to a video titled “Tame Grouse.” The short film showed Game Commission ruffed grouse biologist, Lisa Williams, enjoying an encounter with an apparently tame ruffed grouse.

Williams stated, however, that the young male bird was indeed a wild Pennsylvania grouse that had never been raised or fed by humans and that such “tame grouse behavior,” although rare, is regularly observed in wild birds.

I have been fortunate to have encountered two such seemingly friendly grouse during my outdoor travels. The first one was during the winter of 2008. That January, my friend Bill Carter stopped by my office with some closeup photos of a ruffed grouse.

He related pulling up to the gate on the road to his hunting camp during deer season and noticing a grouse walking in the woods just a few feet from his truck. After watching the bird for a few minutes, he got out of the truck to unlock the gate, figuring it would likely fly away.

But instead of flushing, that grouse actually approached Bill, allowing him to take a picture of it literally at his feet. Since that first encounter, the bird had met him at the gate nearly a dozen times on his way to camp.

Needless to say, I eagerly accepted Bill’s invitation to join him for a chance to photograph the grouse for myself. Anticipation was high as we drove up to the gate, but after several minutes of waiting and watching, the special grouse was a no-show.

I did get many bird photos that day while shooting chickadees, juncos, tufted titmice and nuthatches frolicking at a birdfeeder near the cabin. When we headed back out the camp road, I had my camera ready as we again scanned the woods near the gate for the grouse, but there was still no sign of the bird. Bill had already locked the gate and was ready to climb back into the truck when I heard him say, “Here it comes.”

I’ve watched a lot of grouse run away from me, but as that bird sprinted up the road toward us, this was the first time I ever saw one running to me. When the grouse arrived, it was obvious that this bird was as curious and as fascinated of us as we were of it.

For the next hour, I was able to indulge my photographic instincts to the utmost, taking several hundred closeup images of that beautiful ruffed grouse. During that and four subsequent photo sessions I was able to take almost 2,000 amazing photos of that wonderful bird in every pose imaginable.

Not only was this grouse apparently unafraid of humans, but it also actually seemed to enjoy human contact. 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. One time we managed to have it perch on the barrel of a shotgun Bill held to his shoulder.

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. Often it would march straight to the camera and peck the front of the lens. And several times the mischievous bird circled behind me and snatched the knit cap off my head with its beak.

During one of our last encounters with the grouse, Bill brought a bedraggled, old mounted grouse he had sitting around and placed it in front of the real bird. At first, the grouse kept its distance, then moved in and circled the stuffed bird like a boxer stalking his opponent. In a flash, it attacked the rival, jumping on top and pecking it incessantly. After one brutal assault, it managed to rip the head and many feathers off the fake bird.

I wrote a newspaper column and a magazine article about my experiences with that special grouse, and shortly afterward I received emails and phone calls from a dozen or more folks who had a similar experience with a “friendly” wild grouse. Some further research led me to discover that usually those grouse that appear unafraid or somewhat tame around humans tend to be young males that are probably defending their mating territories.

Such 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 expected to meet and photograph another wild grouse at close range. But in April of 2014 I was trout fishing 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 was stunned to see a beautiful male ruffed grouse walking toward us just three or four feet away. “That’s a ruffed grouse, the state bird of Pennsylvania,” I replied.

My other companion was a hunter. He said, “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, and we took several photos of the bird before heading on to the stream.

If you would like to check out the Game Commission tame grouse video, go to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website at PGC.pa.gov. On the right side of the homepage, find the box marked “Check It Out,” and click on the link “#WildSciPATameGrouse.

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