It’s no secret that last year was generally a pretty lousy year for grouse hunting. Around home here I only went twice, and saw a grouse once. It was a wily old bird. I was walking a woodland road that had a thick carpet of clover growing on it. It was in the last half hour of legal shooting when grouse come out to dine on things like clover, so all conditions were right.
The old cock grouse showed itself up on a hill when I was still many yards away. Though far away I was, the bird made me. His neck was stretched out in that funny pose they assume just before running into the brush or thundering into the air. I quickly stepped off to side to let the bird make it’s move – and it did: a fast sprint into a jungle of inch-thick aspen. I moved up with my still naive’ but “still learning” dog to see if he could move the bird for a shot. Bandit found the grouse quick enough, but not a feather I saw as the wise old bird flew deeper into the woods.
Obviously that grouse had a keen sense of survival like so many of the grouse that live in this area. Mid-Minnesota grouse are very wary birds in most cases. But not all grouse are like that. A week or so after the afore mentioned grouse evaded me, I went to the province of Saskatchewan to hunt waterfowl. A local fellow who befriended us said he had just flushed a bunch of those dummy birds we call ruffed grouse down in the states. “Stupidest birds I’ve ever seen,” he said. They are not that dumb I thought and told him they were considered a pretty cagey bird down home.
A few hours later we were sneaking through a row of brush towards a small pond with a bunch of mallards in it when I heard bird sounds all around me. And, no kidding, there had to be ten ruffed grouse walking right at me like so many chickens looking for a little feed. The darn things wouldn’t even jump when I moved! Fortunately for them I had three friends creeping up on some mallards who would not appreciate my sudden grouse hunting. Later I returned to bag two single grouse that let me get within a few feet before flushing.
So what is it that makes birds with the same biological make-up wind up at opposite ends of the intelligence spectrum? Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection where the strong and smart prevail while the infirm and stupid end up as dinner is a partial answer. Down home here there are hordes of hunters chasing grouse from September to January. Every grouse that doesn’t learn to beat it when a hunter approaches doesn’t survive long, and it’s genes wind up in someone’s garbage. The smart grouse live to perpetuate themselves, and theoretically produce a population of smart birds. Apparently in that part of Canada, the grouse had few hunters to pare down their numbers, so more inept birds survived. I believe the same difference occurs here between grouse closer to metropolitan areas and those in the far northern part of the state.
Granted, this is not the total answer. Habitat, population cycles, and all sorts of things affect the number and survival instincts of the ruffed grouse. One thing is for certain, however, I sure enjoy running into some of those dumb ones now and then.