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SCOTT SHALAWAY Sometimes grouse do the darndest things

Friday, October 19, 2001

Sometimes the behavior of birds is difficult to explain. A cardinal, for example, might battle its reflection on a pane of glass in exaggerated territorial defense, but to carry on the battle for hours, days and even weeks seems inexplicable.
Ruffed grouse also often carry aggressive behavior to an extreme. Several times I've been stopped on back roads by strutting males that refused to leave the middle of the road. They'd rather be run down than give up the road. And a West Virginia game biologist once told me of a similar occurrence. When he got out of his truck to chase the grouse off the road, the bird flew into the cab and wouldn't leave. So the story I'm about to tell shouldn't have surprised me. But it did.
Bird attack: A while ago I received an e-mail from a neighbor who reported that her father was having trouble with a belligerent grouse. Whenever he entered the woods for a walk or to cut firewood, the bird attacked. Knowing that grouse can be surprisingly aggressive, I made a mental note and went about my business.
But last week I ran into the man in question, George Antill, at a local restaurant. I've known George for years, and he's not prone to exaggerate, so I listened carefully as he told me the whole story.
It began back in July. Whether on foot or four-wheeler, he noticed a ruffed grouse had begun following him. As the weeks rolled by, the bird became a faithful companion. But it also became increasingly aggressive. I got the feeling George thought he was being stalked.
At first George enjoyed the attention. Close encounters with wildlife are always fascinating. But eventually the bird turned hostile. .
"When I was on the four-wheeler, it would trot along behind me," George said. "If I went too fast for it to keep up, it would fly up from behind and smack into my back or head. It really got to be annoying."
Marched around: When George stopped to cut firewood, the bird would just march around him in a circle. As the fall hunting season approached, George was afraid the bird's fearlessness would get it killed. So one day he carried a butterfly net out to the wood cutting area. And, sure enough, his faithful companion showed up.
"I just wanted to spook the bird a bit," George explained, "so I caught it with the net, and we had a long talk. I told him to stay away or he'd end up on someone's dinner table. When I released the bird, it flew into dense vegetation, and I thought I had made my point. Five minutes later, though, he was back, circling round and round.".
"I grabbed the net and caught him again," George said. "This time I took a small stick and gently hit the bird several times. I didn't want to hurt it, but I did want to send the message that people can't be trusted.".
Once again George released the grouse, and once again it sailed into the woods. And five minutes later it returned, content to circle as George cut firewood.
Still a team: Last I heard, George and his feathered friend were still a team.
I wish I could explain this bird's peculiar behavior, but I can't. I've come to realize that sometimes animals do things that make no sense. And I suppose that should come as no surprise because people also often do things that make no sense. It's surprises like this crazy grouse that make wildlife watching a source of never ending wonder. It reminds me of my late grandmother's favorite television program where Art Linkletter featured kids who said the darndest things. In the woods, I've found, it's grouse who do the darndest things.
If you have a story of unusual animal behavior, I'd love to hear it. Let's see if anyone can top George's tale.