The bird that strolled out onto the shoulder of the North Country road looked a bit disheveled, but his appearance was to be expected. A heavy morning rain had passed through the area only an hour previous. Everything was still wet- very wet. How wet was it? Well, it was so wet that a sizable aquatic leach was still riding the back of a Painted turtle that was out seeking an egg-laying spot up the road a spell (see here). Normally this strangely ornate passenger would be forced to seek a moister location about the inner shell edge, but not so on this moist morning.
A layer of dripping wet bracken ferns baptized the pigeon-sized Ruffed Grouse as it strode openly onto the gravel. Water beaded off his back and tail but a few of the back feathers were totally soaked. I would guess his original mission was two-fold. The roadside offered an opportunity to gather a few stones to aide in digestion and then the road itself had to be crossed. My presence there was unexpected, so the creature suddenly found itself with a third option – that of fleeing back from whence it came. Fortunately, in those few moments of indecision the bird anxiously stood with every feather on end and presented a brief photo opportunity (see above and here).
Since living in S.E. Michigan, I have been long away from the sphere of the Ruffed Grouse. I grew up in the grouse country of West Michigan and fondly remember the thumping territorial calls of this woodland bird echoing across the Egypt Creek Valley. I’ve encountered it since on rare occasions over the years, but frankly it hadn’t crossed my mind too much.
A few weeks ago I was giving a bird presentation to an elementary class at my museum. Somehow, the subject of the Ruffed Grouse came up via the random selection process called the “2nd grade stream of consciousness.” An earnest little fellow decided to volunteer, without raising his hand I might add, that he knew what a ruffed grouse sounded like. Normally I don’t accept such spontaneous outbursts, but out of curiosity I prompted him to share his knowledge. Quietly he answered: “They sound like a heartbeat.” The simplicity and accuracy of his response bowled me over and temporarily flooded my mind with memories. What a perfect description.
The territorial call of the male grouse is unlike any other Michigan fowl. It is produced by a rhythmic pumping of the wings. “Thump…thump…thump,” the beat begins and it slowly accelerates into “thumpa thumpa thumpa” and then graduates into a whir of “thumpathumpathumpabrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” before coming to a halting stop. The whole routine is executed from the height of a favorite stump or horizontal log within the male’s territory. To our human perception the sound is felt as much as it is heard. You could say that it sounds like an old motor trying to kick in, or the beating of a soft skinned drum, but there is really only one way to describe it. It sounds, and feels like, a heartbeat.
It wasn’t exactly a miracle that led me to the presence of a real Ruffed Grouse only a few days after my child-poet encounter, but it was an appropriate coincidence. I’d like to say that this road-crossing bird was one of those males. It definitely displayed the typical fringe of chocolate brown ruffles around his neck, but this feature is also found to a lesser degree on females. A majority of males, however, have an unbroken dark band running along the outer border of the tail feathers, while most females display a sporadic band. Apparently speckled rears are also a masculine feature. This bird was prominently banded and speckled as you can see in this view (below and here).
Our roadside moment ended quickly as an oncoming pickup roared down the way. The grouse launched itself into the air and silently drifted across the road to disappear into the wet brackens on the other side. It was gone in a heartbeat. If nothing else, the incident provided an opportunity to combine a leech, a bird, a memory, and a 2nd grader into one essay without ruffling too many feathers!