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Birdshot and backlashes on grouse

It has been said by upland hunters since the founding of the nation that the ruffed grouse is the noblest game bird of them all. Those of us who have sought this feathered rocket from aspen ridges to balsam thickets, cannot say enough for its speed and deception in flight nor its tasty addition to a wild game dinner.Nor its sometime lack of sense.We have never met a woodland gunner who has not pondered the seeming lack of intelligence encased within the feathered skull of this partridge of fact and fable. “Lord, but they are dumb,” is a common sentiment.An example revealed itself this previous week when my wife Edith and I ventured up the Fernberg Trail toward Lake One on a journey to reconnoiter grouse byways. About where the west edge of Doc Udovich’s cutover butts against terrain of the federal government, a hen grouse and five offspring strode out upon the blacktop.The hen made an immediate retreat to the roadside shrubbery, but the five young-of-the-year, about three-fourths grown, stood staring at our approach. We could hear the hen clucking frantically at her offspring, warning them of approaching disaster. They paid no heed. Finally, as we were within 15 feet, three of the bug-eyed chicks drifted into the roadside weeds from whence they craned their necks and peered at us as if astonished.The other two stayed well out on the roadway, heads cocked to one side so they had a good view of our approach. “Look, you guys,” I said in a loud voice. “If you do not get off this road, some car is going to come barreling through here and render you into bloody bundles of feathered pulp.”At this, they cocked their heads to the other side, as if to see if that view was better. I pushed my boot toward the nearest bird which sidled off to join the trio peering at us from the grass. The clucking of the hen was even more insistent but her brood showed no interest in her warning. The last bird was a total loss. It stood on the blacktop, craning its neck and blinking at me as I came up to it. At that point, I nudged it in the butt with a stick and that finally got it moving. Barely. It strolled off the pavement, stopping in the roadside weeds to look back. “All right, you idiots!” I yelled, rushing at them and flapping my arms. Two flew in alarm, two scurried for a short distance toward the blueberry bushes in the cutover, but the last stood and looked. The hen flew, recognizing some sort of danger in my presence. The last bird simply refused to be frightened. It was not until the toe of my boot rattled the weeds next to it that it finally dodged off into the understory.How, pray tell, could such a species exist in the wild all these centuries with such skilled enemies as foxes, weasels, mink, hawks and owls? Not to mention getting flattened out on the pavement or ending up stuck on somebody’s radiator grill? Perhaps it is simply that over eons of time they have reproduced and maintained a population beyond the hazards, not the least of which are those of us striding the trails with shotguns loaded with No. 8 shot.Some of them, we can also attest, learn well. Some which survive the dangers, become quite adept at racing through the underbrush. Or flying across forest openings far out of shotgun range or flushing behind balsam screens presenting no target at all. Apparently, the trusting ones are soon culled out and only the very wary make it. These become so furtive it makes a person wonder if they are the same birds that strode so boldly out on the roads earlier in the fall.Perhaps providence has made them this way, that even less skilled hunters may harvest a few unwary birds and the rest become infinitely more difficult to shoot. Perhaps it was the way it was so designed. Who’s to argue?

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