Two theories on why grouse are such great escape artists
By Mark Torinus
For those of us ruffed grouse hunters who do not shoot grouse particularly well, and I am one of those poor souls, we can at least take comfort in thinking we understand their habits. At the end of the day, when the dog is fed and the Manhattan tinkles in the glass, I have my grouse theories to bag and freeze while my friends clean actual birds. It takes a full two or three Manhattans to bring these theories into clear focus, and patient friends who are willing to listen to an idea take wing only because they are my friends and they indulge me. And so I hold forth . . .
I got ‘im; I don’t got ‘im
In the 2005 hunting season, we had a strange weekend in which two grouse that seemed to be hit hard and went directly down, were neither in hand nor even down.
My son Nate is a relatively inexperienced grouse hunter because he spent his fall high school and college days chasing pigskin instead of grouse. Now that he is in the work-a-day world and living near home, we are able to make up for lost woods time.
Friend Gary, Nate and I were working a good looking trail at the very end of the day in late October. The waning afternoon sun cast comforting shadows and golden patches of light. Gary and I were all in, so when we turned a corner and saw that the trail came to an end a hundred yards ahead, we agreed in unison, “Let’s have a smoke and let the kid finish it up.” I told Nate to work it right to the end because the tangle of cover there looked like great grouse habitat. Nate muttered something about a “wild goose chase,” but then took both dogs and alertly worked the trail. As sometimes happens in an absolute blue moon, my prediction of a grouse at trail’s end proved true. Both dogs got excited and up went a beautiful last-of-the-day grouse. Nate fired once and then whooped with excitement. He then made a critical mistake. The bird went down like a rock, so he broke his gun and watched with satisfaction as a spent shell neatly ejected. He stepped into the woods with a useless gun and encouraged the dogs to retrieve his prize. Instead, it was a surprise. The bird up and thundered away.
“It went down like a rock,” Nate explained. “I don’t understand.”
The next day, Gary and I were working side by side through a pretty stand of aspen and pine, and we could see the gravel road was 25 yards ahead. “Careful, Gary,” I yelled. “That bird we pushed went this way, and I doubt he would cross the road.” I had no sooner gotten the words out of my mouth when I heard a flush and the loud report of Gary’s 12 gauge over-and-under Ruger . “Did you get ‘im?” I hollered. “Yeah, I got ‘im,” Gary replied. “He went down on the other side of the road.” We both broke onto the gravel together, and that’s when I watched Gary make a serious mistake. He could see the grouse lying on the opposing bank, so he broke his gun and stepped into the woods to hand retrieve. You guessed it. The grouse stuck up his head and noisily boogied.
“I hit that thing hard,” Gary explained. “It went straight down. I can’t believe it.”
The two incidents didn’t make a large impression on me until I did something nefarious later that season. But out of my weakness comes knowledge, and so I accept my licks and share the story. When I started grouse hunting 40 years ago, road hunting didn’t have the same stigma attached to it that it has today. My dad basically only road hunted, so when I learned to hunt, that’s how I started. In my dad’s defense, he was on crutches for eight years of his adult life as we waited for hip replacements to be perfected so walking was not a good option for many of his grouse hunting years.
I guess there is a part of me that never shook road hunting, and when I see a grouse along side the road, especially after a long walk, I figure it is The Almighty giving me an easy one for the many, many hard ones I have flushed and missed. I am a fellow who averages about five grouse a season, despite lots of walking, so don’t think of me as a greedy meat hunter. I have to take ‘em when I can get ‘em.
I had joined a nephew for some wonderful woodlot hunting in central Wisconsin, again in the late season. I was heading for home around noon because I had family obligations, and while there was more than a foot of snow on the ground, it was warm and above freezing. As I cruised down a gravel road, I spotted a grouse standing roadside for all the world to see. He pecked in a spot where gravel had melted through the snow cover, gathering bits of hard rock for digestive grit. I pulled the car to a stop, fumbled for gun and shells in the back seat, then stepped out of the car for a shot. I fired and grouse went to all fours; that is, the grouse spread eagled on the snow and gravel as low as it possibly could go. I remember how strange it looked with both wings flat out, and that should have been a clue.
I stuck the gun back in its case and let the whining dog out to retrieve. Much to my disbelief, when I looked back at roadside white snow, there was no grouse. I approached the spot only to see clear impressions of wing beats in the soft snow and nothing more. My gift from God had soared heavenly, but was still of this earth, much to my astonishment. (I was in such a state of disbelief, my dog and I worked the deep snowy ditch for 20 minutes and did a loop in the woods, just to make sure I had not wounded the bird. No tracks were to be found, other than those arriving at the grit pile.)
This was a great opportunity to learn. I found the shot disturbance in the snow and marked it with an “x” of two dark sticks. I trudged back to the car, raised my gun and pointed at the “x” and the truth was absolutely apparent. I had shot high.
Though that bird went down hard, I had never hit it. I had sent a “whoosh” of hot lead over its head, and it had hit the deck spread-eagle style. The Hawk Theory was born.
Grouse are probably more susceptible from air attack by birds of prey than ground attack, and it would make sense for them to develop the aversion tactic of hitting the deck if a hawk swoops and misses. They hear the rush of air, they feel the pressure, and they dive to earth and brambles to avoid being eaten.
A stream of shot screaming over a grouse’s head would have them react the same as they would to a hawk’s dive. Suddenly, I knew exactly what had happened to Nate and Gary earlier in the season. They had simply missed high, and the grouse had done what had come natural, seeking the safety of getting as low as possible as fast as possible. Despite the presence of dogs and a loud shot, they had reacted to attack from above. Both birds had indeed dropped like a rock, but they were far from dead. They were simply behaving according to The Hawk Theory.
Why am I always looking the wrong way when a grouse flushes?
I have shared one of my grouse theories with you, and as my brother Tom would say, if you think you know something about grouse, you are dumber than you think. Consider me dumb and happy then, because as my friends indulge me, I ask you to examine with me yet a second theory of grouse behavior. The setting for this revelation was a year earlier, set once again in white snow and dark trees.
My wife’s uncle Jerry died and that meant a trip to central Wisconsin. I did not know my wife’s uncle well, so I hope you will forgive me when it occurred to me that I might be able to sneak in a late-season grouse hunt as long as we were headed north.
“What would you think if I took along my gun and the dog,” I said, testing the familial waters gingerly. She, being the veteran wife of a compulsive grouse hunter, just smiled and said, “that sounds fine. When would you go?” I explained that I would respectfully stay for the entire funeral, but would it be okay if I skipped the ham sandwiches and the brownies back at the family home? I was given my walking papers.
I got into the George Meade Preservation about 2 p.m.. There was a light, fresh snow in the woods from that morning and the temperature was unseasonably cold, down around 10 degrees. Wisconsin allows hunters to chase grouse until Jan. 31, so late hunts are cold and changing clothes in the woods is finger tingling, cheek chafing business. A logger harvesting poplar trees for the local pulp mill had quite a chuckle watching the Milwaukee city slicker hop around the back of the truck trading a pinstripe suit and wing tips for an old pair of leather boots, wool pants and plaid shirt.
I had parked next to a 10-year old aspen stand and through the bare, frozen trees I could see a promising swamp edge in the distance. Not 50 yards into the woods, I noticed a set of grouse tracks going my way. They had to be fresh, so I followed, my head down in concentration. The tracks ended abruptly and my mind clouded briefly forming that age-old grouse hunting question, “What the heck?” Then the grouse exploded from directly over my head. We are talking an explosion here. We are talking about a barren aspen stand with no wind to muffle sound and a frozen tundra to amplify it directly into my ears and brain. We are talking about a grouse sitting no more than 10 feet directly over my head with absolutely no place to hide. He needed that swamp edge bad, and he bolted for it with a heart-pounding “wwwrrrrrrrrr!”
I was so stunned I only got the gun half way to my shoulder when he was already forty yards out and disappearing as quickly as a Brett Favre pass. I never even fired.
I chewed and chewed on this episode until The Predator Eyes Theory took shape in my mind. We are a predator. Our eyes are set to the front like a wolf or a bear because we hunt other animals. A predator needs to focus its eyes like a rifle shot if it hopes to survive. An animal of prey like a grouse, deer or squirrel has its eyes set to the side because it is dinner for land-borne and airborne meat-eaters. It needs to have its head on a 360 swivel and be ready at any moment for flight, its chief means of survival.
Isn’t it logical then, that a grouse, over thousands of years of evolution, would know that the exact time to take startling flight is when the grouse can no longer see those predator eyes?
Suddenly, all of those hilarious, awkward shots I had to take over the years made total sense. The grouse which lets you walk by, then busts back the other way. The grouse which waits until you are climbing over a fence to make its explosive exit. The grouse which puts the only pine tree in a square mile between you and its escape. The second grouse which waits until you have swung hard on the first grouse or are looking down to reload before it explodes. In each case, diverted eyes told the grouse “Now!”
On the flip side, think how often a grouse caught in your line of vision on the ground or in a tree will absolutely freeze. Or how the grouse on the end of a pointing dog’s predator nose won’t even breathe as it tries to hold still. Fixed in the headlights of predator eyes, the bird won’t even think of moving, trusting instead in stillness and camouflaged feather.
So what good are theories?
What can we do with this newfound knowledge, this Predator Eyes Theory? I must admit, I don’t know if the knowledge makes me a better hunter, because I still have to climb over fences, I still have to step around the lone pine tree, and I still have to look down to reload. I have caught myself thinking more often, however, “keep your head up” and “let’s pause a moment” before I take on that fence, or before I move to the next opening on my path. If the grouse is going to go up where I am not looking, at least I can have my head raised and my two feet planted for a good shot.
The only other practical idea I have had is to paint a second set of eyes on the back of my hunting hat and a third on top. No, I haven’t done that . . . yet.
The Predator Eyes Theory also gives me plain comfort. It is nice to know that a grouse will wait to take flight until I am looking the wrong way, and when it does, as thousands of years of evolution tells the bird it must, I shouldn’t take it personally.
As for the Hawk Theory, there are practical applications for grouse hunters. The next time you fire and the bird literally dives to the earth, recall the Hawk Theory and step into the woods with a gun ready to do more work. Or better yet, wait for the dog to go in for the retrieve and you hold your gun at the ready. While the bird is down, it may not be out.
Will either theory bring more birds to my personal larder? Not likely. Just because I try to outthink a grouse doesn’t mean I will ever be able to outwit them. They will always have the upper hand on this hunter, and this is exactly why I chase them so passionately in wing-beat reality and in flights of theoretical fancy.
Mark Torinus is the author of Prairie Pothole Fever and a avid hunter.