Published October 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Origin of grouse behavior raises some questions

Wild animals frequently do the opposite of what we would expect. And tameness, or lack of fear of humans by wild creatures, is a behavior worth wondering about. Naturally, one should be incredulous of any wild animal behaving abnormally docile. It’s one thing to have a chickadee land on your hat, or a chipmunk feeding out of your hand, but every year people get hurt, sometimes even killed, by wild animals.

By: Blane Klemek, Bemidji Pioneer

Wild animals frequently do the opposite of what we would expect. And tameness, or lack of fear of humans by wild creatures, is a behavior worth wondering about. Naturally, one should be incredulous of any wild animal behaving abnormally docile. It’s one thing to have a chickadee land on your hat, or a chipmunk feeding out of your hand, but every year people get hurt, sometimes even killed, by wild animals.

But of course, and thankfully so, most human-wildlife encounters are not hazardous. We enjoy watching birds feeding from our birdfeeders only feet from our windows, or observing chipmunks and squirrels on our doorsteps. Even so, we human observers typically view, upon discovery of our presence, the backsides of wildlife as they fly, bound, slither, crawl, swim or scamper away from us. Most wild animals associate us as the predators we are and, therefore, are programmed to act accordingly in order to survive another day.

There are, however, exceptions to every rule. Over the past several years I have learned of three separate incidences where, for example, ruffed grouse have befriended human admirers. As unusual as it sounds, it appears to be more common than one would think.

A few years ago Bill and Anne Louise Sliney of Bemidji, told me the story of “Pretty Bird” the ruffed grouse. Anne spoke affectionately about Pretty Bird, as she called the grouse, and how the bird came to adopt her and her husband as its human foster parents.

For about a year, Pretty Bird visited the Sliney’s regularly. Anne said she first became acquainted with the bird the prior autumn while raking leaves. The bird was perched on a pile of dirt near the woodshed watching as Anne worked.

Just as Anne predicted, the bird disappeared for the winter, but to her and Bill’s surprise, Pretty Bird showed up while the couple began tapping maple trees for sap the following spring. The grouse even followed Bill from their house one morning to the sugar maples, a distance of a quarter mile.

Pretty Bird vanished again for most of that summer, but re-acquainted itself with the Sliney’s in the fall again. Anne also told me that as she sat on her rocker on their front porch, Pretty Bird was often beside her, producing soft vocalizations while perched on the arm of a nearby chair.

Another relationship between grouse and human I came to know occurred in rural Menahga. Boyd Junes telephoned me one day excitedly telling me about a weird grouse following him around in his woods.

Boyd explained that the bird first showed up as he drove his four-wheeler along one of his trails. The bird flew across an opening and would alternate walking and flying to keep up with Boyd as he rode his ATV.

Over the following months the grouse continued to follow Boyd wherever he went throughout his woodland, even perching on his shoulder as he sat and drove his machine.

And yet another ruffed grouse encounter of the unusual kind occurred just recently when Barb Magnuson, a friend of mine who works at Lake Bemidji State Park, informed me about a tame grouse near Bemidji.

Relatives of hers have made friends with (or is it the other way around?) a grouse that appears on their wooded trail whenever they call for it.

The bizarre acting grouse follows them around, even showing up, like the Boyd Junes’ grouse, when the bird hears or sees the four-wheeler. Barb wondered if the sound of the machine’s motor might resemble the drumming sound produced by male ruffed grouse, and if the sound somehow incites a territorial response by the grouse.

In any event, the pet grouse, which is called “Opie” and “Gomer,” is another oddball grouse to be sure. Barb’s relatives wondered, too, if “Opie-Gomer Grouse” had gotten into a stash of fermented berries and becomes, well, you know. No matter the case, the grouse, as you can see, is as real as they come.

How such corny grouse behavior evolves (only each individual grouse could possibly know) is anyone’s guess, but these are interesting stories nevertheless.

They remind me of my own boyhood dreams of animals following me around as I explored the forests. Strange experiences indeed, all of which are possible as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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