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image ruffed grouse drumming

King of the Forest

The log is a stage. And the small bird is a majestic player.

By Birney Dibble

Quietly, tensely alert, he stalks through the leafless tag alders with the aplomb of a king reviewing his honor guard. He lifts each three-toed foot with precision and places it directly in front of him. With each step his crowned head bobs in concert.

It's a chickenlike bob, but there's nothing ludicrous or unseemly about it. Rather, it conveys the posturing of a noble aristocrat.

A sudden gust of wind swooshes through the alders. Overhead a small branch cracks like a pistol shot. The ruffed grouse freezes, feathers sleek, tail pointed straight down, neck elongated, head up, and beak outstretched. For a full minute, perhaps longer, he remains motionless. Slowly his head turns in full half circle; his beady eyes search the hostile forest. Then he resumes his trek.

He enters a dense stand of red pines -- some mere saplings, but most 20 to 30 years old, sired by a 200-year-old giant nearby. Without pausing, the grouse jumps onto a log, 30 feet long and almost 2 feet in diameter. He struts directly to the exact spot on the log where he drummed last year, and where he has drummed this spring since the snow melted.

Thick, dark green moss covers the log, except for a 3- by 5-inch patch of yellow wood where the grouse's feet have dug in hundreds of times.

Motionless he stands, tail furled behind him, wings cupped, breast thrust out slightly, neck elongated, beak pointing straight in front of him. Spots of white accent his black eye fore and aft. His brownish crest is thrown upward several inches and blows gently in the breeze.

His manner seems to say, "Here am I, the lord of this part of the forest. This is my log, my pines, my oaks and alders. This is where I live, and where my mate will come to meet me. This is where I drum."

For half a minute, his head turns slowly from side to side. He scours the shadows for fox and feral cat, scans the sky for hawk and owl. His tail is now partially fanned out, the black-and-white bars showing plainly in the bright sunlight.

Deftly he drops the tip of his tail onto the log and locks it there for balance. He puffs out his crest, wiggles his shoulders as if to arrange them into the proper slot, and then settles his body downward so that his rump is only an inch off the log. He no longer bears any resemblance to the graceful grouse that pranced to his drumming spot. Rather, he is a rectangular mass of feathers perpendicular to the ground.

He flips his wings straight back and swings them together in front of him with a swift clapping movement. A deep boom resounds through the brush. It mysteriously sounds as if it could be coming from above the drummer or a hundred yards behind him in the forest.

Still maintaining his rectangular shape, the grouse settles his shoulders and slumps his body, then beats the air again -- and again -- and again.

Each boom follows the previous one by a slightly decreased interval of time, until his wings are a brownish blur and the sound a ventriloquistic whirrrrrrrr. His wings never touch in front of him, nor do they touch his body.

Coincidental with the finish of the drumming, he tucks his wings against his body. In one fluid motion, he straightens his legs and raises his tail and fans it.

The entire performance has taken 11 seconds.

The grouse stands, inert, alert, wary. Then he seems to relax a bit, his neck not stretched quite so far, his tail not quite so stiff. He rests -- for about three minutes.

Gradually, he regains his regal pose. His head turns slowly; his eyes catch every subtle movement. Then his tail drops, his breast puffs like a pigeon's, his body settles onto the log, his wings flip backward.

And he drums.

He drums for hours, every two to four minutes. Finally, after a session, he slowly marches down the log toward the root end, leaps gently to the ground, and disappears into the shadows.

But a few hours later, fed and rested, he wends his way back. He hops up on the worn yellow spot on the mossy log. And he drums again -- because he has to, because he wants to, because he would be frustrated if he couldn't. He drums on to establish his niche in the ecosystem.

The King of the Forest. All Hail!

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