The Grouse in My Head

“Hunting is not fiction, but it happens in the mind.”
—Datus C. Proper, Pheasants of the Mind

Proust had his madeleines. Grouse hunters have their intracranial videos.

[by Robert DeMott]

IN A LIFETIME OF PARTICIPATING IN FIELD SPORTS, one visual image tops my memory bank: a solitary ruffed grouse flying on a somber winter afternoon—almost dusk—toward a distant treeline. It’s the last flush of the day, following four or five hours of hard tramping behind an eager bird dog or two. Men and dogs are fatigued and have begun to lose their edge. The wild flush might have been a lost chance to bag a bird for the day, or, with some luck involved, it might have been icing on the cake. Either way it’s one of the few unpointed birds flushed all season, so no matter how it’s counted, it’s a missed opportunity. More often than not no shot was possible, either, as the bird, out 60 yards and silhouetted against a stark leafless backdrop, rockets toward roost cover on the next ridge.

For five decades and then some that video clip has played in my head on a recurring loop in its own version of a haunting. It’s only one grousy image I might have chosen from thousands of hours of upland bird hunting, but for some unaccountable reason it seems to have chosen me. Which I guess explains its indelibility and its constancy. So if it is a haunting, it’s a haunting in a good way, because it returns me to a primal scene when, as a teenager, hunting with my uncle in the northwestern portion of my native Connecticut, I first experienced the original of that elusive grouse, first felt the startling punch-in-the-gut bombshell of its go-for-broke escape. It’s not for nothing that first things have a way of remaining first things.

The flush and flight inscribed an arc in the graying air, accompanied by an aural score you won’t hear in any concert hall on earth: music of wings and its rapid diminuendo. Since then I’ve always wondered which matters most: the moment of the flush itself, full of explosive energy and headlong passion, or the moment after, when the fleeing bird becomes a ghost gliding into silence, easing into memory. Think of Emily Dickinson’s ruby-throated hummingbird: here now, emerald and cochineal, then gone like a wisp before you know it, as the bushes adjust their tousled heads and you wonder what it was you actually witnessed.

 “Some nights, instead of falling asleep with thoughts of preparing a sumptuous grouse dinner for my friends as I often used to do, I pray for a single cock bird to find its way into that cover and kickstart the rebuilding process.”

I know a perceptual tantalization when I see one, and either way, as physical presence or mental image, as fact or metaphor (or better yet, both at once), this flush-and-flight scenario is my private signature stamp of the upland woods’ wildness, whose unpredictability, mystery, and allure keep me coming back. In more than half a century, I have never had enough. To put it another way, like Dickinson’s buzz-winged hummer, a fleeing grouse (late winter afternoon or otherwise) is a proposition that can’t be argued with or trivialized. It is what it is. Period. There’s hunting, the blessed Aldo Leopold once said, and then there’s grouse hunting. In the latter, failure can be a kind of success. After all, in these hyper-aware times, many hunters have taken to counting points and flushes rather than number of birds bagged.

AND THAT’S FOR A GOOD REASON. Besides being a recurring entertainment inside my head, the video loop is prophetic and augers gloom and doom. Literally and symbolically, the avian revenant, the grouse disappearing into dusk, has taken on added significance in recent years. With most of the grouse population in southeastern Ohio (where I’ve lived since 1969) long gone like smoke up the chimney, hunting them has become mostly an elegiac pursuit, a bittersweet mental exercise in longing at best and lament at worst, often inspired by immersion in 40-plus years of my personal hunting journals. Remember when grouse were as plentiful as backyard robins? Well, truth is they were never that abundant in Appalachian Ohio, but the tricky thing about nostalgia is that it replaces reality with wish, fact with desire.

Here are hard facts: the 2011-2012 Ohio Department of Natural Resources Ruffed Grouse Cooperating Hunter Survey (to which I’ve contributed since 1970) showed the most dismal tale ever recorded. The flush rate per hour in my hilly, rural southeast corner of the state was 0.50; statewide, it was 0.02. Even playing fast and loose with math, the latter number is a precipitous decline from the 1970s’ high of 1.26 flushes per hour. Down here we have never been in anything but secondary, maybe even tertiary, grouse range, and our laughably low totals have always been outstripped by the abundant Great Lakes and northern New England states, but at least they reflected a huntable population, and in selected areas of Ohio, especially in the southeast quadrant, a fairly bounteous availability of the grandest of upland game birds.

As grim as the situation has become, I am nagged less by the scarcity of grouse in my region than by what would certainly be excessive guilt if I should actually bag another of our precious gems. This isn’t to say there aren’t birds scattered here and there in my range. Ironically, I have a solitary grouse in the gnarly back regions of my property in Athens County, but I consider her (I’ve never heard a male drummer so I’m guessing it’s a hen) out of bounds for gun and dogs. I’m no Aldo Leopold, but I believe in ethical stewardship of the land we inhabit. Besides, I’d be hard pressed to live with myself if I took away that lady grouse’s chance at happiness. Some nights, instead of falling asleep with thoughts of preparing a sumptuous grouse dinner for my friends as I often used to do, I pray for a single cock bird to find its way into that cover and kickstart the rebuilding process.