Hunters seeking to put the ruffed grouse of the woods of northeastern Kentucky in the game bag may rely as much on strong legs as the gun they pack. This most prized – and respected – upland game bird establishes his territory in the deep hollows and on steep slopes, among briar patches and thickets and deadfalls.
He has devised a number of tricks to escape a man and his dog. He may wait until the last minute to flush from his cover. The roar of wings unnerves even a seasoned bird hunter. Miss the first shot and a second one might never happen.
He might fly straight ahead or maybe cut right to cross the creek and land high up on the opposite slope. He might frustrate the dog by flying back over the hunter’s head. One thing for sure, he’ll try to put some cover between him and the gun.
The grouse seeks no favor from men, although he’s no doubt thankful now and then for an abandoned apple orchard or a deserted and long-neglected farm, where food is abundant.
But they can satisfy their hunger by eating an abundance of berries, fruits, buds, twigs, even wild flowers, all found in their home territory back in the woods.
Over the course of seasons, Winford Porter and his son, Jeff, have dusted the feathers of quite a few grouse with a load of birdshot.
All of the above paragraphs were meant to lead us into the fantastic story of one particular ruffed grouse with unexplainable behavior. Never did Winford and Jeff think that a ruffed grouse of the deep woods would ever act as this bird has. It is unbelievable, but it’s true. I’ve known these two men for years. Never think that they would attempt to fool us with a pen-raised grouse.
It happened recently, during Kentucky’s hunting season for wild turkey, which closed May 8. They were in the woods, about a mile from the nearest road, calling for turkey. They noticed the grouse out at a distance. Instead of flying away, it came in their direction, with no apparent fear.
It didn’t seem to be seeking food but – hold on, now – fellowship.
This grouse finally got so close that Jeff was able to reach out and grab it. Winford wound up with it in his lap. He laughed as he petted it like a kitten. Jeff shot some pictures with his iPhone.
They shooed it away as they climbed on their four—wheeler to leave for home.
“I warned it to keep a sharp eye out for coyotes, hawks and owls,” Winford said, still finding it hard to believe that he had cradled a grouse in his arms.
Jeff said the first time this bird was spotted was evidently during deer season in November. His hunting companion reported that a grouse had followed him out of the woods.
“But he’s from up North and I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about,” said Jeff, laughing.
But then came the spring wild turkey season and ample proof that a tame ruffed grouse, a hen, was inhabiting this section of woods.
“If it was pen-raised and released I would think it would be wild by now,” Jeff said.
Or else, they figured, it would have returned to the place it was raised for the free handouts of chicken feed.
“Dad and myself have hunted the hills of Kentucky our whole lives and we never saw a grouse act like this one. It’s amazing. It’s not every day a guy can hold a wild grouse.”
GROUSE ARE TERRITORIAL
According to those persons who study ruffed grouse behavior (and there are thick volumes written on the results of such studies), a male ruff establishes his territory in the woods. Usually in the center of it is the log he uses for drumming.
This drumming sound can be heard throughout the woods in the early mornings of April and early May. It’s meant to attract females and to warn other males that he’s staked a claim on this area.
Using his tail to brace himself, he stands upright and, with outstretched and cupped wings he beats his wings rapidly. This action creates a vacuum. Surrounding air rushing in to fill the vacuum collides to create the drumming sound. It’s much like the sonic boom created by a fast-flying jet; or like lightening zapping through the air, leaving a vacuum that the air around rushes in to fill, colliding to create thunder.
Old Thunder Wings, we’ll call Mr. Ruff. Our hope is that he’ll experience a comeback in numbers and live a long life, especially so for this unusual grouse experienced by bird hunters Winford and Jeff Porter.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at (606) 932-3619 or [email protected]