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Spruce Grouse

Spruce grouse on Webster Cliff Trail.

Wired Fowl

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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I once saw a spruce grouse apparently wearing a radio tracking device.

My family and I often see spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) on our hikes up Mount Jackson. Not every time, but maybe one hike out of three, we encounter one or more of these large, bold birds. The first couple of times we saw them, we were surprised by their calm demeanor as we approached and passed right next to them. Now, having become somewhat familiar with them, I'm more surprised to find one acting nervous as we pass.

Our first encounter with a spruce grouse was the first time we had hiked up Mount Jackson, when my sons were all in their teens. They each wandered off exploring the treeless area around the peak while I just kicked back in the cool breeze.

When it came time to head down - we had to get back to the campsite before dark or we wouldn't be able to see to cook dinner - I set out to round up the boys. I found the first hurrying along a narrow trail, looking for me, with a strange look of concern on his face. "There's a bird over there acting weird!"

He led me back along the trail to the southeast side of the peak, and the bird was still there. I didn't know exactly what it was at the time. It looked like a female ruffed grouse, but much darker and perhaps a little larger.

What my son called "weird" behavior was really nothing weird at all. The bird was in a wide, sandy stretch of this little trail, rolling on its side, thrashing its wings and feet, then standing and ruffling its feathers all around, before repeating the process.

It was taking a dust bath, removing loose feathers and parasites, and drying the excess oils from its plumage. Perhaps all birds do this occasionally, but, I think, ground-living birds like upland game birds do it more often than others. I had seen ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, and bobwhite quail dusting themselves dozens of times. Nothing weird about that.

What was weird was that the bird was continuing to dust itself as we watched from less than ten feet away. The grouse was certainly aware of our presence, but not the least bit concerned. Any upland game bird that I knew would have flown off in an instant if a human caught it dusting itself. More likely, it would have disappeared into the bushes before most humans would even notice that it was there. Here was this bird, calmly enjoying its dust bath, while we stood within striking distance of it.

Was this bird blind? And deaf? How could it survive? How could it find food and avoid predators?

Weird, indeed.

Later, when I looked up the upland game birds of the White Mountains, I learned that this was a spruce grouse, and that they are characteristically bold. But at the time, I didn't quite know what to make of it.

But I took advantage of the opportunity, and watched this grouse closely to learn whatever I could about it.

Then I noticed something really weird. There was a thin, stiff wire sticking out of the bird's back! The wire was about as long as the bird's whole body. It was springy, and bounced as the bird moved, but it generally rose in a curve from a point right behind the shoulders, standing about six or eight inches above the bird's back, trailing back to just beyond the end of its tail.

I figured this was an antenna, and there was a radio transmitter strapped to the bird, invisible beneath the feathers. Part of some scientific study of these birds, I guessed.

That was a long time ago. I assume that, with the advances in technology in the past couple of decades, scientists can fit a chicken-sized bird with a transmitter and antenna small enough that it would not be visible at all to the casual observer. And today's wildlife biology trackers probably provide vastly more data than the one I saw in the early 1990s.

For all I know, every spruce grouse I've seen in the last few years was also wired for data. But I do know that the first spruce grouse I ever saw was wearing some kind of a wire.

It's interesting to know that, while I was making my own first-hand discoveries about the spruce grouse, some scientists were learning genuinely new information. The very bird that I saw on top of Mount Jackson that day might provide the source data behind something that I might read about some time.

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