Close Encounters: In the Mood
Mabel was looking good, sporting the same sleek silhouette, dark complexion, and smoky eyes I remembered from four years earlier, the last time Id laid eyes on her. I held her tenderly, pulled her close, closed my eyes, pursed my lips—and blew.
A cloud of dust arose from her feathers. Mabel, you see is a stuffed female grouse.
For more than 20 years, I have enjoyed observing and photographing spruce grouse—especially males exhibiting courtship behavior. To be sure, its an intermittent hobby, depending on a cooperative subject.
My spruce grouse epiphany came in 1979 when I stumbled upon a male spruce grouse near Isabella. The bird was stunningly cooperative, letting me approach within arms reach. I didnt appreciate it at the time, but he was easy to photograph because he was posing for a female perched nearby. He was really strutting his stuff, so from then on I was hooked: I looked for any opportunity to watch and photograph displaying male spruce grouse.
Despite their reputation as "fool hens," spruce grouse arent always approachable. Once I realized that a male with a female is less concerned about a 185-pound mammal stalking him, I decided to acquire Mabel from a taxidermist friend.
I christened her Mabel because I didnt know anyone by that name, and so I hoped not to offend any friends or relatives. As luck would have it, Mabel spent the next four years on the shelf gathering dust because no opportunities arose to test her charms on a male spruce grouse.
That is, until a fine spring evening off the Echo Trail near Ely. I was tagging along with Lisa Belmonte, a graduate student studying boreal owls. We hoped to locate a radio-tagged owl and learn a bit more about its roosting habitat. Just before dusk, as we were homing in on the owl, I heard a familiar sound—a low, vibrating thddddd reminiscent of the end of a ruffed grouse drum. A minute later, I heard it again, so I excused myself and followed the sound to a small rock outcrop where the woods opened up slightly. There I discovered a male spruce grouse flying in a noisy and exaggerated way, back and forth from the ground to a tree, as part of his mating display.
This led to my dusty reunion with Mabel. A few days later, I escorted her to the same opening in the woods and found the male displaying. I set Mabel in the opening and retired to the woods, thinking my presence might inhibit the males behavior. To my delight, he almost immediately flew down near Mabel. He engaged in a minute or two of preliminaries, pecking at the ground and strutting around with his tail feathers erect. Then he walked over to Mabel, and, much to my surprise, jumped on her, furiously ripping feathers out of her neck and head.
I soon saw that my retreat to the woods had been unnecessary: When I went to rescue what was left of Mabels dignity, to say nothing of her feathers, I had to wrestle Mabel away from the males embrace.
He retreated, with his mouthful of feathers, to ponder his next move.
I tried a different tactic, positioning myself at arms length from Mabel where I could more readily defend her. And defend her I did. I put a blocking move on him with my hand as he tried to mount Mabel. This worked initially, because for several minutes he simply pressed his body against my hand, trying to force his way to Mabel. Then, he apparently realized, "Oh, convenient perch!" He clambered atop my hand and resumed his attack. Not to be outdone by a bird brain, I countered by slowly moving away my hand—along with the amorous male—until Mabel was out of harms way.
Judging from his perplexed look, I guessed he wasnt familiar with the idea of a moving perch. He was nothing if not persistent, though, because every time I managed to shoo him away he came right back for more.
I had ventured into the woods hoping to snap some good photographs of male breeding behavior, but I had my hands full just keeping him at bay. I left the woods with few photos but elated by my interaction with such a magnificent bird. I couldnt wait to bring my wife, Mary, and share the experience with her.
The next day we headed into the woods looking for our cooperative male, whom I christened Rock after his favored outcrop. After a brief search, we found Rock. He didnt appear to be in a display mode, so I suggested to Mary that she bring out Mabel to attract his attention.
She sat down with Mabel in her lap. By wiggling Mabel in what Rock apparently took to be a seductive manner, Mary triggered an immediate transformation in him.
He went into full display mode—feathers fluffed, tail erect and semifanned, brilliant red combs over the eyes engorged—and charged up the hill to Marys side. By using appropriately timed wiggles, Mary soon had Rock leaping where I suspect no wild spruce grouse has leapt before—onto a pair of jeans worn by a human. Apparently unfamiliar with denim as a walking surface, Rock slid off a couple of times. Each time he was lured back onto Marys legs, determined to be within pecking and mounting distance of the increasingly bedraggled Mabel.
Perhaps feeling sorry for all the pecking Mabel had endured to this point, Mary decided to make Mabel return fire and defend herself by pecking back. This new tactic slowed Mabels rate of feather loss and produced an even more attentive Rock. Whenever he started to lose interest, Mary recaptured his attention by throwing a few more "love pecks" his way.
At one point Mary relaxed Mabels guard, and Rock quickly clambered onto Mabels head. He soon abandoned this precarious perch, but I suggested to Mary that she see if Rock would perch on her head.
Apparently caught up in the moment, she agreed.
Mary rested her head on the rocks mossy carpet and repositioned Mabel. Rock circled her and seemed to conclude that his best approach to Mabel would be to scale Marys head. Not quite sure what to make of this hirsute potential perch, but overcome by hormonal imperatives, Rock was soon applying a unique scalp massage to Mary as he tried to scramble up her head.
Mary didnt budge, but her facial expression and the potential for lacerations prompted me to suggest she put her hat on, then try again. She did, and Rock soon perched atop the brim of her baseball cap.
As spring turned to summer, Rock became more difficult to locate. The few times I did find him, Mabels charms had ceased to work their wonders, perhaps signaling a seasonal switch from "teenager" hormone level to a more normal condition for Rock.
Mabel certainly needed a break from Rocks amorous attentions, but the prospect of waiting an entire year for a repeat performance was unacceptable to me. Aware that males defend their territories from dispersing young-of-the-year males in the fall, I contacted my taxidermist friend again. Luckily enough, he had an extra male spruce grouse in his freezer. Now Mabel has company on the shelf in our pantry, while I eagerly await my fall grouse hunt.
DNR scientific and natural areas specialist