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When wild animals decide to be your friend

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek

I've been fortunate enough to befriend a few wild animals in my life. Or, more likely, they befriended me.

There have been a few raccoons, an eastern chipmunk, a gray squirrel, a black-billed magpie, and even a wild-caught pigeon. In all cases, these creatures enriched the carefree days of boyhood beyond my "wildest" dreams. With my wild animal companions, I felt like Sam Gribley in the adventure novel My Side of the Mountain.

One wild creature I've come to learn that will occasionally seek out human companionship in the most unlikely, inexplicable ways — though not to yours truly yet — is the ruffed grouse. Several readers over the years have written to tell me about their personal experiences with none other than Ol' Ruff.

Take for instance an email that I received from Jodi Frye last September. With her permission here's her story in her own words.

"I just had to tell you about my son and his pet grouse (ok, not really a pet). We have a small walking trail in the forest by our home and my son likes to ride his bike back and forth down the trail. He wishes it were a longer trail. He's 16.

"Anyway, a couple of weeks ago he comes in and tells me there is a baby turkey in the woods following him while he rides his bike. I thought perhaps it was orphaned, so he took me down the trail to see it. As we were walking up the trail he says, "There it is!" and I see this brownish bird walking towards us.

"It stopped and looked at us and turned around and walked the opposite way. I could see it was not a baby turkey but a ruffed grouse. So I told him that. He asked why it followed him. I didn't know what to say to that. Anyway, every day my son would tell me how this grouse follows him up and down the trail while riding his bike. Sometimes the bird would fly to keep up with him.

"Yesterday, I get a text from him while he's out riding his bike. He said, "Mom the grouse flew up from behind me and his wing hit my head (and) it scared me." That text made me laugh! So yeah, the bird loves my son when he's on his bike. If he just walks, the bird does not follow. He just really loves that bike with my son on it! So yeah, I just wanted to tell you our ruffed grouse story. Odd little feathered friend."

Odd little feathered friend indeed! Jodi and I shared a couple more emails about the bird and we're both wondering, along with her son, if the grouse will make an appearance this spring. It's certainly possible, of course. I'll report back if it should happen that Jodi and her son's family grouse makes a repeat appearance.

Over the years, I've enjoyed other stories from readers about similar experiences with ruffed grouse, all of which I've written about. There was the story of "Pretty Bird" that Anne Louise and Bill Sliney, rural Bemidji, once told me about.

Their bird followed Bill to the house one day and thereafter made regular appearances on their front porch, even perching on Anne's rocking chair while she herself was sitting in the chair.

A quick Internet search reveals dozens of similar and familiar stories told by others living throughout the United States in ruffed grouse range. In Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even Alaska. One Alaskan blogger told the story of a ruffed grouse that readily approached him and his machines.

He wrote, "If I'd stoop down and dig into the ground with my hand, he'd come right over, about a foot away and start cooing, clucking, and picking up grass, twigs, (and) whatever was there and toss them over his back. It became quite clear that this grouse must have been imprinted to humans when it was a chick to have no fear of me at all, whether I started my skid-steer or running power tools; noise and activity made no difference to it."

Closer to home and a man that I met, Boyd Junes of rural Menahga, once told me about a ruffed grouse that would ride on his shoulder while he operated his four-wheeler. The bold bird at first just flew behind him as he puttered along on his wooded trails and then later resorted to hitching rides on both the machine and Boyd's shoulder.

Another grouse, which behaved similar to Boyd's grouse, was reported to me by Barb Magnuson of rural Bemidji. Barb has relatives who also had a grouse follow them whenever they rode their four-wheeler on their trails. They affectionately named their grouse "Opie" and "Gomer."

Just exactly why some ruffed grouse follow some people, sometimes even allowing contact, is somewhat of a mystery and hard to explain. It's thought that such birds are typically over-aggressive male birds with elevated levels of testosterone, thus altering their normally wary behavior, causing them to be abnormally bold.

Needless to say such behavior would not be favorable to ruffed grouse as a whole, given that if every grouse behaved as such, the birds would be overly vulnerable to predation and accidents.

Maybe someday I'll meet up with a friendly "Drummer of the Woods." I know I'd enjoy it, given my affinity for the species. Nevertheless, all of us upon encountering ruffed grouse and other species of wildlife — be they so-called tame or otherwise — are so blessed as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.