By Ben Goldberg
A ruffed grouse began showing up at the job site. I'm doing renovations to a retreat cabin up in the hilly woods of Charlemont, Mass, where it is also home to grouse. Grouse have evolved to be remarkably well camouflaged, which I interpret to mean they do not care to be seen. Therefore, it seemed unusual to me that one would unapologetically get so close as to be underfoot, and clearly eyeballing us. So unusual, that for as much as we were thrilled and distracted to have this strikingly elegant bird around, it was also perplexingly in the way of our human need to make progress.
Other than mosquitoes, raccoons, and that crowd, we humans tend not to have that many personal interactions with official backwoods wildlife. When we do, and the wildlife is not trying to eat us, our garbage, or our houses, it's compelling to become captivated. So, when a wild bird, the grouse, walks out of the woods, stands at your feet and looks you in the eyes, you feel called upon to pay attention.
We know that grouse is one of the species that leads you, the big ruthless predator, away from its nest. This was my initial thought earlier in the year when I first showed up to assess the project. But that first encounter with the grouse was a couple of hundred yards further away from the job site on the two-track leading to the cabin. If the grouse was leading me away from its nest, the nest had to be quite a ways off. Besides, it felt more at the time as if the bird was not quite leading, but following along beside the truck. Or at least, that was my perception at the time.
This time, the bird intentionally came onto the job site. And come to find out, it also had been visiting a nearby house where it had somehow grown comfortable enough with the neighbors to sit on their arms and shoulders. Unusual indeed.
Or was it? I headed straight to the ruffed grouse section of the world wide web. I learned several things I did not know about these creatures. They eat seeds, insects, greenery, berries, and the occasional eft or frog. This one handily finished off the seed cluster of a honeydew. They adopt new territories. Perhaps this one was busy adopting when it showed up from different quadrants of the woods on different days, but I also learned that grouse have a six to ten-acre home range. I learned as well that grouse can be domesticated for a variety of reasons, including for hunting and homestead meat production; although releasing, then hunting something you raised that had become familiar with you, seems like a level of betrayal only humans are capable of conjuring. Maybe recreational butchering is a more apt term. Nevertheless, domestication would be one way to explain its comfort around humans, and showing up at the job site.
Where I live, the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, it's pretty easy to be imbued with progressive thoughts. I tried very hard not to impose groovy valley attitudes on this bird but failed. For instance, before I learned that domestication and escape or release were a possibility, I was eager to presume that this bird was an emissary of some sort from birddom on an interspecies bridge-building mission. I was quick to want to adopt and care for it. Feed it. See to its wellbeing. Impose our humanity onto the "poor" thing. It was furthest from my mind that other species, owls or bobcats for example, had similar ideas, if not as evolved as I believed mine were.
I also considered that since we humans are capable of hosting a wide range of psychological and emotional variabilities, maybe also so with such as grouse. Could it be possible for this one to have an overactive nest protection instinct or something? It had a way of following behind us out of eye contact, and occasionally rushing at our feet and pecking our heels as we walked, as if to herd us along.
So, where am I going with all this? Grouse are very seriously solitary. How solitary? I learned their courtship and fulfillment of courtship lasts in the minutes. They do not have evolved social skills and for the most part, behave instinctively. It is a very human tendency to place our own social observations and behaviors onto other species. So when the thing stares you in the eye, you might presume curiosity or some other interest. But eye contact or other body language behavior means different things to different creatures, and it's generally perceived as aggressive or to establish dominance.
When it clucked and cooed at me, I thought I'd cluck and coo back. I had no idea what the grouse's cooing meant, or how mine was interpreted by the grouse, especially if it also pecked at your foot. I perceived the pecks as aggressive, but since grouse have limited communication options, or at least I've been taught to believe that, and since they are not as social as, for example, herd animals, the pecks could have been a myriad of other things too. Like friendship? Maybe? I was hoping! I think anthropocentrism is a risky business. But, we are good at it. Probably better than we ought to be.
But I found myself becoming attached to its presence. I liked the interaction. It was there on its own terms, and there were no requirements for it to stay. There was, however, a requirement for me to get my work done instead of, sorry, grousing.
It, Gracie, has not been around for a few days. I have no idea if it lost interest (anthropocentrism), it’s just off being a grouse on one of its six to ten acres, or is just a pile of feathers on the forest floor. But if it shows up again at work, I know my very human happy emotion will rise, and I will coo at the thing.