For the Birds Radio Program: Spruce Grouse
Laura Erickson’s concerns about highway speed limits are for the birds. 3:46
Last Thursday, in my never-ending quest to find the elusive Spruce Grouse, I set out with two birding friends, John Heid and Jeff Kern, at five thirty in the morning to drive that good old stretch of Highway 2 north of Two Harbors. Spruce Grouse are supposed to hang out there, and I’ve seen them on several occasions, but I’d been skunked the other times I went there this year.
It was a beautiful morning, the full moon hanging above the still silhouettes of trees, gentle mist softening the darkness. Along the freeway to Two Harbors, Jeff suddenly slowed to a stop and pointed to a shadowy figure in the roadside field—a coyote. Every time I go out with John Heid, we spot some sort of wild dog or another. He and I saw a wolf last time we were out. We were far more fascinated with the coyote than it was with us. It barely gave us a backward glance and headed off into the woods.
This was the first mild day after the record-breaking cold weather. We figured we’d see lots of birds, but boy were we wrong. Just before dawn, we made it to the Sand River, where Spruce Grouse country is supposed to begin, but we hadn’t seen a single bird yet. We found a very squished Ruffed Grouse on the road, but that was it. One lone raven flew over the road, almost as if to reassure us that at least somebody was around, but that was it along Highway 2. We took a left when the road ended at Highway 1, and headed up in the general direction of Ely.
At long last we came upon a grouse in the road ahead. She was a female with a small, round head, tail tipped with brownish orange, and delicate lateral streaking on the underside—our first Spruce Grouse! We drew closer at slow speed, but she suddenly grew wary and flew into the woods. We were confident that we’d find another, and maybe even another, and kept going.
But that was the only live Spruce Grouse we saw all morning. It wasn’t that they weren’t around—the beautiful day drew them like a magnet from under the snow. But most drivers don’t cruise along Highways 1 and 2 at low speeds, and the Spruce Grouse is singularly poorly adapted to modern civilization. We came upon one carload of teenagers that had hit a beautiful male square on and were still wondering what happened. The bird wasn’t wondering anything anymore. On the way back, we found another dead male and a dead female—three dead Spruce Grouse in all. While we were looking at one mangled carcass, a man in a truck stopped to see if we needed help. When we told him we were looking for Spruce Grouse, he said, “They never move until you hit them.”
These poor birds were tough and smart enough to survive the coldest weather ever recorded in Minnesota. At long last they had emerged from their snow burrows to enjoy a little sunshine and warmth, just to be run over by cars. Winter is hard enough on birds without our adding to their difficulties. Right now an issue facing people in every state is whether or not to raise speed limits. I’m shocked and dismayed that human safety is of so little importance to policy makers that limits are increasing everywhere. Dozens more people will die each year because of the more lethal danger of accidents at higher speeds. And bird deaths will increase by the thousands. Why must we always be rushing someplace else rather than slowing down a bit to enjoy the place we’re at right now?