For the Birds Radio Program: Looking for Mr. Spruce Grouse
Birdwatchers aren’t the only ones looking for Spruce Grouse these days, but when Laura Erickson came upon a stranger also searching for them she thought he might be more interested in eating one than adding it to a bird list. (This recounts the very first time Laura ever saw a wild wolf.) 4:21
One of my annual winter traditions is driving around in search of the elusive Spruce Grouse. This bird, nicknamed the “fool hen” for its lack of fear around humans, makes itself foolishly available to hunters who, according to DNR statistics, bag between 10,000 and 30,000 every fall.
Meanwhile, the majority of birders have trouble finding it even at a distance, despite the fact that birders don’t shoot them. One of my hunter friends, Duluth assistant fire chief John Keenan, says you have to tramp through the woods to find any grouse, looking especially under balsams, where Ruffed Grouse poke their heads out of the snow like little periscopes. But tramping through woods is not typical birder behavior. To maximize the number of birds seen in winter, we tend to get into automobile mode, driving from feeder to feeder, scanning roadsides and trees as we drive along. I get Ruffed Grouse at my mother-in-law’s feeder in Port Wing, so I never worry about seeing them.
To see Spruce Grouse, I follow Kim Eckert’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, and drive along a two- or three-mile stretch of Lake County Highway 2, 41.5 miles north of Two Harbors. Before dawn, Spruce Grouse often feed and pick up grit along the sides of roads, and for some reason, the stretch of Highway 2 beginning at the Sand River is especially good for finding them. But I may rethink my technique, since it’s impossible to see Spruce Grouse periscopes in the snow from a car, and since this year hasn’t gotten me a single Spruce Grouse on the roadsides, either.
Last week I drove that stretch back and forth three or four times with my birding friend John Heid. It was darned cold—depending on who we talked to and how wimpy their thermometer was, the temperature was somewhere between 20 and 40 below. Suddenly John spotted someone else apparently also searching for grouse, running along the roadside ahead of us on foot, encased in a fur coat so think that we couldn’t tell whether it was a he or a she. As we approached closer, the stranger suddenly turned around, looking right at us. We would have been happy to offer a ride, except it was a wolf.
I’ve lived in Minnesota 15 years now, but never before saw a real, live wolf, and this one was only about 10 or 15 feet away. The first thing I noticed was that it was a lot bigger than chickadees and Blue Jays. The second thing I noticed was its eyes. Some hawks and owls have that same aura of untamed wildness glowing in their eyes, but birds of prey seem to look into my eyes as equals—sometimes defiantly, sometimes with boredom, but never with wistfulness, as if under other circumstances I might have provided a nice, tasty lunch.
The wolf had a slight limp, making us suspect that the pads of its feet were frozen. Winter arouses my feelings of compassion for owls and chickadees and Spruce Grouse, creatures that endure and somehow survive against the harsh and frozen landscape. And now frostbitten toe pads aroused maternal worries about a whole new species. Wolves don’t ask for our pity. Like owls, they live and die, enjoying life’s pleasures and enduring its suffering, all on their own terms, taking only the briefest notice, if any, that we even exist, and doing their best to avoid crossing paths with us. Wolves and owls don’t respond to compassion or respect in human eyes—perhaps their disdain for our pity and their utter lack of interest in us is part of the matchless thrill we feel when our eyes finally meet. The wolf probably never gave me a second thought, but I’ll long remember our encounter that magical morning on Highway 2.