The Bird Familiar

(Grouse Cover, by Brett James Smith)

In pursuit of a distant drumming.

by Reid Bryant

IF YOU PEEL BACK THE LAYERS OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRD HUNTING to expose its core, you will find grouse. Centuries of manhandling have made cackling roosters and coveying quail the poster children of our uplands, but nothing has the romance of ruffed grouse. Perhaps I feel this way because grouse have doggedly resisted man’s compunction for domestication. They are true natives, with a sense of place and purpose that defies us. Or maybe it’s the bird’s remarkable physical adaptations borne of harsh places—cold, dry, and windswept places that, in some cases, have become nearly obsolete. But more than likely it’s that grouse live in quiet corners where I would otherwise not go. Save their pursuit, I’d have no reason to wander for miles through shin-deep prairie grass, to brave the alder tangles and blackberry thickets, to climb to thin-air elevation, or weave through copses of spruce and dwarfed fir.

Ruffed grouse make us the bird hunters we aspire to be.

It would be silly to belittle a species with superlatives, but any sportsman worth his salt has a critter that beds down in his soul. For me, it has always been Bonasa umbellus. My love affair with grouse began years ago in the coverts of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. In that region, they are colloquially referred to as partridge, a moniker that, when afforded a lilting Vermont accent, makes them all the more endearing. Through the October afternoons of young adulthood, I hunted them dogless with a wobbly 12 gauge, slinking through the popple whips and apple-strewn hedgerows around my hilltop home. Flushes were, as fly fishers say, fine and far off, often resulting in something barely audible and unworthy of a shot. At other times, I’d flush birds by nearly stepping on them, and waste two shots getting a good look at a bird only after the chambers were empty.

My first ruff was a bird that rose out of the conifer brush behind Tom O’Hanlon’s deer camp. I fired both barrels and watched the bird bend off, seemingly unscathed. A few hundred disheartened steps deeper into the woods, I found the bird on her back in final throes. When I got to her she expired, a single pellet having lodged someplace vital, but without the immediate impact of a full load of 8s. I held that grouse and knew full well what a gift I’d been given. That bird remains at the pinnacle of memories when I close my eyes on winter evenings and recall blessed days afield.

Eventually, my ruffed grouse hunting took on a certain aesthetic and a tonal quality all its own. Ruffed grouse became synonymous with maple syrup and rotting apples, with the faraway lowing of Holsteins at milking time, and rime ice on the puddles. They flitted through associations with pipe smoke and wool plaid and knee-high rubber boots, inhabiting memories tinged with fir sap and hickory salt. They marked New England’s secret places with the circumspect reserve that described New Englanders themselves: grouse became a synchrony of people and place and wildlife that were part of my identity. The paucity of birds to bag played an essential, puritanical role. What bugged me to no end were the fellows I knew out West who would shrug at my myopia and show me pictures of the ruffs they’d shot with arrows while elk hunting. “Ruffed grouse are stupid,” they’d say with a smile. “I killed the last one I saw with a stick!” The species they described was clearly not the one that I’d grown to know and love, a bird that had a limitless ability to confound and compel.

(Strutting Grouse, by Cole Johnson)
(Strutting Grouse, by Cole Johnson)

The thought that my bird’s cowboy cousins could be so different prodded me long enough that I finally went West to see for myself, leaving behind my wool plaid, and fearing the prospect of Mrs. Butterworth’s at breakfast. Fortunately, I had Tim Linehan to help me through.

Tim is a New Hampshire guy who went West long ago for a bigger version of what he’d grown to love at home. Dissatisfied with the Yankee assumption that we lie in the bed we’ve made, he simply made a new and bigger bed, this one in northern Montana. There the trout were where they should be, eating on top and fighting with clean hearts. Whitetails coursed the hillsides, more fretful at the prospects of grizzlies and wolves than commuter traffic and habitat loss. And drumming among the aspen thickets and alder runs were the familiar, barred-tailed birds, as
innocent and perfect as children. But Tim was to
find, and to show me, that things are not altogether what they seem. Friends would describe him with the old idiom that begins “You can take the boy out of New England. . . .” They could have said the same for the ruffs of Montana’s Yaak Valley.

On a sunny October morning, we set out in search of grouse. The hillsides of extreme northwest Montana are verdant and thick, rising in a majestic swell of a place that leaves the craggy drama to landscapes farther south. It looks for all the world like northern Vermont, minus the Holsteins and steeple-strewn villages. Moving up out of the valley, the coverts were also recognizable: gravel roads that gave way to popple whips, brushy corners, overgrown spur roads and log landings. I could have been at home, had the sky not been so big, but I forgot about that when I saw a bird fly across the truck hood. How Tim could keep going up and not stop right there in a grouse hunter’s Arcadia, I barely understoood.

A mile or so farther on, we pulled off the road at a logging trace. Tim’s setter Maisey was collared and ready, and we put her down and tied our boots. This landscape was familiar enough to assume that the incidence of birds would be similarly lean. I stepped into the brush and pushed through it, tracking Maisey as she worked past the massive trunks toward an alder run. There, with the canopy miles above us, we walked two-abreast alongside the seep and the tangle, letting Maisey take the hard road down the middle. I kept reminding myself that there would be no woodcock to distract us, and that the points and flushes would be thundery and swift. But then I wondered if the stories I had heard were true, and into my mind crept a worrisome thought: What if these western birds were as dumb as they said? What if they embarrassed themselves with a complete absence of self-preservation? What if they sat stupidly on limbs, refusing to fly? What if the shots were easy? What if western ruffed grouse hunting robbed me of my ideals, tainted the regard with which I held these birds, threatening me to rethink an identity that had grown to rely on them as nearly impossible, in all the ways they had been for me back East?