GORDON, Wis. — Bill was hiding under a balsam tree branch, where the lawn gives way to woods, murmuring away but unusually shy about coming out to visit.
“He’d normally be all over me. Maybe it’s because you’re here?’’ Erik Finstad said. “Come on Bill, get out here! Don’t be difficult.”
It didn’t take long for Bill to come around, however, and pretty soon he was investigating the visitors, waddling over to a reporter’s leg and taking a keen interest in the newspaper photographer, too.
Bill is a ruffed grouse, or partridge to the old-timers. He's a wild grouse to be sure, but one that has imprinted on Finstad and his family at their wooded deer camp retreat in southern Douglas County. The bird first showed up almost exactly a year ago and has been around nearly every day the family is at the place. A family friend assigned the name last summer and it stuck.
“We had some pretty big gatherings with friends last year ... and he just hangs out with us the whole time,’’ Finstand said.
The grouse seems to live entirely around the family’s lakeside deer camp.
“If we’re staying here he’ll fly up on the shack for the night. If we leave, I think he just roosts in the trees. He’ll hang out with us at night around the fire at night until he’s had enough, then he just flies up into a tree at the edge of the yard,’’ Erik noted between feeding Bill bits of worm purchased at the local bait shop.
“He loves worms,” Erik noted.
Bill also loves the campfire, and will perch on the fire pit rocks and turn to face his friends.
“But the other day he got too close and sort of started on fire. I had to tackle him,’’ Erik said. “His tail feathers are still singed … Obviously, he’s not very bright.”
Bill is a chatterbox, too. He’s almost constantly clucking, cooing or peeping — typical, soft grouse noises — but he also makes a hissing sound when he’s mad at Erik. While he seems infatuated with his human buddy he will also occasionally charge at Erik’s leg.
“I don’t know if it's a male thing or if he gets jealous, because he does it most when other people are around. It’s like he wants all my attention,’’ Erik said.
“He definitely likes dad best,’’ said Naomi Finstad, Erik’s daughter. “He follows him everywhere.”
If Erik walks out on the dock, Bill follows. If Erik walks up on the deck, Bill jumps up on the deck. If Erik mows the lawn, Bill follows him around the entire yard. If Erik rides off on the four-wheeler ATV, Bill follows.
“He loves the sound of the four-wheeler,’’ Erik noted.
But Bill is a homebody. He only follows family members so far up the driveway, then stops. Even when the Finstads go for walks or four-wheeler rides in the woods, Bill only follows so far.
“He’s never gone more than about 150 yards and then it’s like he hits a wall and stops,’’ Erik noted.
When he first showed up last May the bird would hang around but still keep his distance. By June he was walking right up to family members, even perching on a knee or shoulder. He even perched on the camp's outdoor shooting bench and hung out while they practiced firing rifles.
“Not much seems to scare him now,’’ Erik noted.
Strange, but not unheard-of behavior
Ask most grouse hunters and they will gladly tell you how wary the birds are. Most grouse run or fly away at any close contact with people. But there have been stories for years of woodsmen and rural residents in the Northland befriending grouse. In some cases it seems male grouse approach people during the spring mating season, maybe as a macho gesture or territorial stand.
But Bill’s closeness with the Finstads has lasted, surviving a winter-long separation. (The Finstads are pretty sure Bill is a male because, while they have never seen him drum, they have seen him strut, a springtime male mating characteristic. The color bands on his tail feathers also appear to match a male’s.)
Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist based in Brule, said he’s come across tame or pet grouse a few times in his career. He has no idea why some grouse seem to cozy up to people and suddenly lose their wildness.
“The most extreme was a case of a (grouse named) Buddy who took a liking to a taxidermist couple in the Cable area,’’ Kessler said, noting the couple fed the bird sunflower seeds. “Buddy would come when called and lived an amazing nine years.”
Actually Buddy may have lived even longer but his human 'parents' were killed in a car accident and no one kept track of the grouse after that.
In the wild, a grouse might be expected to live only a couple years at best. They face constant peril from extreme weather and predators like raptors, bobcats, coyotes, fox and human hunters. There also are a growing number of diseases impacting grouse, such as West Nile virus. According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, of every 1,000 grouse chicks hatched (each hen lays 10-12 eggs each spring) only 180 will still be alive one year later — just 18%. Only 80 make it to their second year and only 16, 1.6%, make it to a fourth mating season. The species only survives by making lots of new grouse each spring.
The Finstads don’t know how old Bill is, but say he was fully grown when he showed up last year.
“When we saw him last after deer season I thought that would be it. We weren’t down here (at the deer camp) in the winter much at all. I assumed an eagle or bobcat or something would pick him off,’’ Erik said. “But when we came back in the spring, he was here waiting.”
On a mild night last week, as Erik rode away on his four-wheeler to leave for the night, Bill followed. But only about halfway up the driveway, as usual. Then he turned around to look at the visitors and, if a grouse can have an expression, seemed almost sad that everyone was leaving.
But Bill would wait them out. He knows his people will return soon. They always do.
Two theories on baffling bird behavior
Research the phenomenon of “tame grouse” a little and there are generally two explanations. The first is that they are males being hyper-territorial. That might describe some grouse that hang out with people, but Bill seems more affectionate than aggressive, at least most of the time.
The second theory is that these unusual grouse are exhibiting “genetic throwback” characteristics of their ancestors. Grouse, before humans became common (and became grouse hunters) were apparently extremely docile if not downright friendly. In the 1927 book “Birds of Massachusetts,” tame grouse behavior is explained like this:
“When the country was first settled, this bird was one of the most tame and unsuspicious of the fowls of the air. It was known as the 'fool hen.' It was so tame that many were killed with stones or knocked over with sticks. They were even fair game for the small boy. Forty-five years ago in the wilderness, I saw birds of this species that walked boldly up to within a few feet of the hunter, or even sat on a limb just over his head.
"An occasional unsophisticated bird may be seen now even in southern New England that will seek human companionships, and even allow itself to be picked up and handled, but such birds are rare and usually are short-lived. Where they are hunted, the survivors have become 'educated,' and they resort to all kinds of tricks to escape the hunter and his dog.”
Good when roasted?
The ruffed grouse is one of 18 species of grouse globally. It resembles a smallish chicken — males and females look nearly identical with few distinguishing characteristics — and has several nicknames, including partridge, woods pheasant and ruffled grouse. Adults are generally less than 18 inches long and weigh just over a pound.
The scientific name is bonasa umbellus, Latin for “good when roasted” and “a sunshade.” That refers to distinguishing head feathers.
Grouse also have dark-colored neck feathers, particularly large in the male, that are also called the ruff. Their mottled plumage can range in color from grey to brown to red or a shade of mahogany, depending on habitat, and makes for good camouflage.
The male ruffed grouse is known for its spring mating ritual known as drumming, which in the Northland peaks in April and early May, although you may still hear it on occasion well into summer on warm days. The bird usually stands on a log or stump and beats its wings slowly and then more rapidly, creating a hollow, drumming sound. Drumming attracts females and marks territory from other males.
Source: Canadian Geographic