Ruffed grouse put on a show

A moving branch in a colorful shrub outside my window made me stop and take a better look. My grandson and I discovered a ruffed grouse trying to perch on the wobbly branches of a berry-bearing shrub I had planted out there. The grouse was a little heavy, but the colorful fruit was too tempting not to try and eat. In spite of the precarious perch, the berries disappeared before the bird flew off.

Ruffed grouse are very chicken-like, but their lives are quite different from our domestic barnyard chickens. Grouse are birds of field and forests. Here on this island, we have both the ruffed grouse and the spruce grouse. It is the ruffed grouse that is usually seen more often. These birds especially like deciduous forests. Their feathers, whether male or female, are palettes of grey, black and brown and consequently blend into the landscape where you mostly likely will find them. They are out and about all seasons here, and it is especially fun to find one or two sitting in a leafless fruit tree in December. It always brings to mind the great song that goes “… and a partridge in a pear tree.

Partridge or grouse are known for their courtship drumming. The bird produces this sound by bracing his tail on a log and, at the same time, giving a series of rapid and strong wing strokes. This sound is impressive to all who hear it, but the reason for this behavior is to impress a female. Of course, the male bird also struts about at this time with his neck ruff raised.

It is quite possible to see a lovely spruce grouse some day. The male is especially handsome with his black chin and breast and red eye combs. His tail also is black and has a reddish brown tip. Both grouses feed in the trees, eating buds as well as insect they might find, and also search for such edibles on the ground. In the winter, they definitely prefer conifer buds.

Grouses of both kinds tend to be quite tame. A year or so ago, I had a call one day about a grouse that appeared every day on the top of a roof in Tremont where carpenters were working. The bird would appear when the men got on the roof and walk down the top of the roof right up to the men and even tried to get closer. The carpenters were not sure of the bird’s intentions, and I was asked what they should do about it.

By the time I drove down and looked at the situation, the men had decided it was a harmless and friendly gesture and really enjoyed it. At lunchtime, the bird even hopped up on a knee and joined right in the event. Each day, the bird would greet them, as it did me, when I went to see what was happening and to identify the bird. As I got out of my car, the bird came running over to me.

A hiker friend of mine on the Appalachian Trail told me he actually had to pick up a spruce grouse and move it out of the way so he could continue his walk at a faster pace. They are funny birds. Wonderland is a good place to see them if no hikers have come by with dogs before you.

In more northerly areas, such as Newfoundland, you also can see the willow ptarmigan. A good friend of mine who is wilderness hiker up there has sent me his photos of encounters with this handsome bird. This grouse or ptarmigan is the largest of the species in North America. It is not found here.

Now is a good time to look for northern visitors coming here for an easier winter. Lapland longspurs and horned larks may appear in with visiting flocks of snow buntings. The Lapland longspur is an elegant-looking bird, especially in its breeding plumage. In the winter when it might visit here, you might dismiss it as “another sparrow” of some sort. Where you see this bird, though, might clue you in to the fact that it is not acting like a sparrow. They like to feed out on open ground such as you find on our mountain tops and along the shore. A very good clue would be the fact that you are seeing it traveling about with snow buntings.

The horned larks that come here to visit are fun to see, and I remember well a day in Newfoundland when my daughter and I were pulling into a parking area near the Gannet Cliffs near St. Mary’s. As I got out to head across the meadows to the Gannet Cliffs, a couple of birds went under and around the car. Something about them made me take a second look, and sure enough, there were two horned larks moving about the parking areas and the grasslands surrounding it. There is no mistaking this handsome bird with its black facial marks. There also is a bit of yellow on the bird’s forehead and a black noticeable bib on its upper chest. They feed on open ground. This is the time you might see both of these birds here on the island. They are rare birds but definitely a possibility.

When I looked out of my bedroom window one morning, I noticed a tall handsome mullein plant in the now wintry scene. These plants grow all over the island and are not often thought of as particularly good for wildlife, but they are, and even more so in the winter. It’s often called the velvet plant or flannel leaf because of its soft, fuzzy leaves.

In full form, it stands like a giant, green candelabra growing in the fields and along roads all over this island. Its small, yellow flowers appear along a thick stalk near the top of the plant. A rosettes of basal leaves appears the first year, and on the second year, the tall flowering stem grows. This plant was introduced from Europe and has now spread across the continent. It is a native of the island of Thapos, thus its Latin name Verbascum thaspus. It is said that in Greece it was used for lamp wicks. The towering stalks are visited throughout the years and especially in the winter by our small woodpeckers. Goldfinches gather on the mullein stalks and feast on the seeds. Bees collect pollen from the blossoms. You might want to let this interesting plant grow wherever it pops into view. It can add beauty to your yard and garden, and native birds are attracted to it. Even the tiny hummingbird gathers this plant’s tiny hairs to line its nest.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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