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From the December 2013 Conservationist

Two backpackers on a hiking trail along a foggy mountainside

Back Trails

The Very Friendly Grouse

By Ellie George

Last year I was walking along a quiet dirt road just south of Westport, New York with John and Pat Thaxton, two accomplished birders, when I had the most extraordinary experience. It was my very first Christmas Bird Count, in which birders get together to try to identify and count as many birds as they can in a particular area; we were searching white pines for small songbirds.

A person carrying cameras on a walk through the woods

Pat played a recording of a screech owl's call, hoping to elicit a response from some birds in the trees. Instead, a grouse popped out on the lane and walked toward us. We smiled and recorded the grouse on the tally sheet. But the grouse kept coming, and to our surprise, it walked right up to our feet and seemingly checked out our boots!

Smiling broadly, we looked at the grouse, then at each other, then back at the grouse again. The bird, a female, I believe, as it lacked the black base of the ruff that males have, made almost constant sounds. Some were almost chicken-like low coos, others were purrs, and still others were high-pitched.

A grouse next to a hiker's feet

As she looked from our boots to our faces, we tried to understand her tame behavior. We wondered if people had fed her, and if she was looking for a handout. She allowed us to move a hand slowly to within a couple inches of her breast, but then would back away. She never once pecked or touched us.

The grouse followed us the whole time we walked around, usually staying right behind our feet. When we stopped, she stopped, and we had to be careful not to step on her when we turned around. Sometimes she went off into the undergrowth to feed, but she always came back.

She seemed to focus on one person at a time, and if that person walked away, she followed them. But when another one of us approached, she checked out that person's shoes and then followed them if they went in a different direction. At one point I tried mimicking her low cooing noises, at which point she stopped and listened, then cooed again. I did this a few times with the same result, but since I don't speak Grouse fluently, I hoped I didn't say anything unpleasant.

When we returned to our car, we saw that another birder, Gary Chapin, had arrived. He walked toward us, but stopped when he saw the grouse. I told him it was okay to walk right up to the bird, and he did. To Gary's delight, the grouse checked out his boots, and started to follow him.

After taking a bunch of photos, we reluctantly agreed it was time to search for other birds to count. If I had been alone, I would have spent the rest of the day with Ms. Grouse. I loved watching her feed, and was fascinated by my up-close view of the tiny scales that line the edges of each toe, forming a kind of snowshoe that enables the bird to stay on the surface of the snow. Her feathers were just beautiful, with many different patterns of brown, white, rust and gold which formed superb camouflage.

Gary got into his car to leave, and the grouse followed. I was able to distract her, but as Gary drove off, the grouse first ran, and then flew right after his car, staying right behind his bumper. When he stopped, she did too. We got in our car and drove past Gary, and as he pulled in behind us, we saw the grouse running behind Gary's car along the edge of the road. She ran faster and faster, but finally gave up after we had gone a few hundred yards. It was amazing to watch, and we almost felt badly leaving her behind.

Later, we speculated on the reason for this unusual behavior. Was the grouse raised by humans and imprinted on them? Or was she just a young bird looking for company?

Whatever the reason, it was an extraordinary birding adventure! I wonder what gift this year's Christmas Bird Count will bring!

A naturalist since childhood, Ellie George works as a bookkeeper from her home in Charlton, and monitors loons for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation from her camp at Paradox Lake.

Photo: John Bulmer