To one of our Indian tribes the ruffed grouse is known as Sek-sah-ga-dah-gee, Little Thunder-maker, because his spring drum call is like a faint rumble of distant thunder. It is a mysterious sound, as if a great heart were somewhere throbbing, and to hear it for the first time is to ask with wonder, what is it?
Any woodsman hearing it will say that a cock grouse is calling an unseen mate; but he or you will search many times in vain before finding an answer to the next question, where is he? His drumming is decidedly ventriloquial in that it seems to be everywhere, nowhere, and fades away into silence even as you turn your head to find out where it comes from, It is likewise one of the few fargoing sounds of nature which, like the hunting call of the great horned owl and the mourn of a timber wolf, never rouses a sleeping echo. Woodpeckers also sound the drums of spring, and, if the drummer be a logcock, the echo of his lusty tat-a-tat, when he uses a dry stub as a drum, or his dub-a-dub, when he uses a hollow tree, rebounds from hill to hill, while the drumming of a ruffed grouse comes and goes like the ghost of a sound that is felt rather than heard.
It happened in boyhood that I became well acquainted with a cock grouse, known as "the old beech pa'tridge," who had a drumming log at either end of his range. On an April morning when he was drumming from one log, I hid near the other and thumped a blown bladder that was buttoned under my jacket, increasing the speed from a slow brum brum to a long roll, just as I had heard the drum call many times. Hardly had it ceased before the old grouse darted in and pulled himself up, so near that one could see the angry glint of his hazel eye, bright as a jewel. He probably thought that some cheeky young cock had dared to drum on his range, on his own log, and his strut-strutting was that of a game rooster who hears a rival crowing. Since he mistook my thumping for a drum call, naturally I concluded that he drummed by beating his own sides, but from a much later observation I drew a different and much more probable conclusion.
The stage for this second encounter was set by nature on a ridge behind my spring fishing camp on Moosehead Lake. After hearing a drum call several times a day, and once on a moonlit night, I traced it to a little opening, halfway up the ridge, carpeted by dead beech leaves and curtained on all sides but one by thickets of fir and spruce. In the middle of this opening was a hardwood log, not mossy but dry as a bone. On it a single grouse feather told me, "This is the place." I hid under a low-branching fir on the open side of the stage when Thunder-maker came mincing into sight, frequently stopping to look and hark on all sides. Not until my shy actor was satisfied that he had the stage all to himself would he hop lightly to the log and parade up and down, drooping his wing tips, opening his lustrous ruff, spreading wide his handsome tail. Facing me at last, while I held my breath to be more quiet, he raised both wings to strike them forward and downward with a motion too fast for eyes to follow, and the tense silence of the woods was broken by a single low brum. Other wing beats followed, the tempo increasing until the separate beats merged into a continuous roll, which suddenly and mysteriously tapered away into silence. The mystery was, and is, that the sound grows faint while the wings are still threshing rapidly.
June 23, 1957
After seeing the performance, my new impression was that Thunder-maker's wings do not strike over his back or beat against his sides. On the downward stroke they stop before coming together, and the brum is made, I think, by columns of compressed air striking together—just as thunder itself may possibly be made by air rushing into the vacuum produced by a lightning bolt.
In my boyhood, when grouse were plentiful, I could always find two or three nests within a half mile of the farmhouse. Season after season I followed the chicks from the time they chipped the shell into late October, when each brood scattered more or less widely and so met another brood for the first time.
During the long spring and summer months that all young grouse spend with the mother bird they acquire habits which are as regularly repeated as the rounds of a postman, and as close to the hour as a good clock. They feed for two or three hours in the morning; they preen or dust themselves or just loaf for an equal time at noontide; in the afternoon they feed again and, toward sundown, move leisurely toward the roosting place. Their food varies with the season—buds, tender leaves, grubs, insects, fruit, berries, seeds- mushrooms, beechnuts, acorns—but at all seasons they like a variety. They prefer buckwheat to any other grain, and if you know of a field of ripe buckwheat near the woods you may confidently expect to find grouse there in the late afternoon. When wild raspberries ripen on the burned land, it is holiday time for all grouse; but they seem to regard fruit as a morning diet.
When all ground food is hidden under a white blanket, Little Thunder-maker has one advantage over quail, pheasants and other birds of the same ornithological family. In the late afternoon he flies up into a birch or black birch or wild apple tree, there to fill his crop with next summer's leaf buds, which are already formed and filled with nourishment that needs no grit (sand or gravel) to help grind it up and make it digestible. I have twice found a whole covey of quail dead under the snow; dissection revealed that they had found enough weed seeds to keep them alive, but not a bit of necessary gravel.
A surprising thing about Thunder-maker's feeding habits came to light one autumn when a sportsman brought a grouse whose crop was stuffed with sweet acorns. Every acorn was shelled and quartered, not a scrap of outer covering in the whole handful. This kind of acorn had a hard shell with a pointed top, and how Thunder-maker shelled it so neatly with his beak puzzled me completely. Days later I found the answer. He was digging out old acorns, which had lain for a year under moist leaves, softened by rain and frost.
Besides four or five regular feeding grounds and a favorite opening where he suns himself after rain, Little Thunder-maker has at least one place to which he resorts when his morning hunger is satisfied. To it come at noontide all surviving members of his covey or family group, there to preen or to dust themselves or to gossip a while, as one might infer from their "talk." Unlike my native village, where one could find a few sociable loafers either at the store or in the shoemaker's shop, the loafing place of grouse is in some out-of-the-way corner where hunters with their bird dogs seldom or never look; which explains why one may unexpectedly flush two or three or a dozen of these splendid game birds after tramping all morning through empty covers.
From some such loafing place, probably, came the sportsmen's notion that a flushed grouse always puts a tree behind him. Naturally he does, an evergreen tree when one is handy; but if there be any thinking or experience about it, he selects a place like this, where, behind a wall of fragrant cedar, his flight is as invisible as if he had suddenly gone into a cloud or down a well.
In going from one feeding ground to the next, and from the morning feeding grounds to the loafing place at noon, every grouse follows the same course. He has definite paths through the cover, as a fox has runways, though they are to human eyes as invisible as his regular flyways. Day after day he holds to the same footways and flyways because he formed the habit of so doing when, as a helpless chick, he followed the wise old mother bird in the exact same cover.
In my native locality of southern New England, as elsewhere, poachers took advantage of this regularity of habit to bring grouse dangerously near to extinction. This evil they did by building a low fence of brush and litter, only a few inches high, across a whole feeding ground; at intervals of four or five yards was a narrow opening framed by two sticks stuck in the ground, and at every opening a wire noose was set at the height that a grouse carries his head. Coming to this unexpected obstacle, a surprised grouse would walk along it to find an opening and put his neck in the noose. Tens of thousands of the grandest of game birds were thus strangled, choked by their desperate effort to break loose, and were sold in our city markets. In a lifetime I have kicked to pieces I know not how many brush fences and carried away the wires; yes, and have gone back to repeat the lesson if a second were needed. At first glance it looks incredible that a bird as keen as Thunder-maker should walk along a fence that he could easily step over. But lifelong habits are hard for any creature to change.
Though Thunder-maker will come near to you in full daylight, the only time you can come close to him is in the dark, after he has settled down for the night. Until the snow falls, a solitary grouse, especially a cock, usually sleeps on the ground, huddled against a brown stump where he becomes a part of the sleeping earth. Once, when following an old lumber road in the dusk, I somehow knew that a stump which stood among many stumps beside the trail was a living thing. But what? Even when bending over it, after catfooting within range, my eyes could make out nothing but form or bulk. Not till I touched it did Thunder-maker roar up in my face, giving me a bigger scare than I had given him.
To me, after a lifetime of rather intimate acquaintance, the wildness of Thunder-maker is still his most fascinating trait. He is a child of the wilderness, and so long as one of his kind lives in our sadly diminished woods, his mottled colors, swift-gliding walk and thunderous flight will recall the sights and sounds and wordless feel of the absolute solitude where only he is at home.
NEW DR. LONG BOOK
A second collection of the nature essays rediscovered by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last year will be published July 3 by Doubleday & Co., Inc. ($4). Entitled "Wings of the Forest," it will include "Little Thunder-maker" and "Teedeeuk the Jay" (SI, May 6).