For the Birds Radio Program: Steve Wilson's Spruce Grouse
I watch virtually no TV nature shows. I much prefer being in the midst of the real thing to watching an edited, often digitally enhanced version of nature from inside a little electronic box. But one of the coolest encounters I’ve ever had with Spruce Grouse was via an electronic box, watching a video of Steve Wilson and some Spruce Grouses he’s been observing.
The Spruce Grouse is, in my opinion, the most beautiful gallinaceous bird, with combs of brilliant red skin where eyebrows would be, and dramatic black, white and brown plumage. And male Spruce Grouse have some fabulous mating displays. While Ruffed Grouse attract mates and defend territory with their long-drawn out drum rolls, Spruce Grouse make just a single wing flip. They also make vertical flights–their wings beating hard as they move almost straight up or down between a branch and the bare ground beneath, making a flapping noise. And they have a cool tail swish, flipping the tail feathers open and closed, the rustling sound distinctive if quiet and subtle. Males also strut, their neck feathers fanned out in a peculiar way that is extraordinarily like a cobra’ s hood. I’ve read about these displays, but never been in the right place at the right time to see them in reality.
Steve, being a forest ecologist, carefully observes birds and analyzes what he sees based on the ornithological literature. But he doesn’t stop at observing- he designs experiments with wonderful scientific curiosity and insight. That’s why he first brought a dead female Spruce Grouse, stuffed by a taxidermist, to a Spruce Grouse display area.
Amazingly, not only did he almost immediately get a Spruce Grouse to show up and display to poor dead Mabel, as he called her-the male stayed with her when Steve or his wife Mary tried to take the Mabel away after the male jumped on her and started pecking.
Steve’s observations will make wonderful scientific papers and articles, but he took his study to a higher level by enlisting the aid of documentary producer and Minnesota birder Peter Neubeck. Peter captures on video entire Spruce Grouse displays, from close up, and also how individual males responded to Mabel. Suddenly the extraordinary intimate and occasionally hilarious observations Steve made can be experienced by hundreds of birders.
Steve presented his video at the annual Hawk Ridge Weekend banquet. His narrative was as enlightening and entertaining as the video, and since seeing it I feel like I’ve actually visited the secret spot where Steve goes to watch males displaying in early spring. The film shows the displaying male jumping on and mating with Steve’ s gloved hand when he was trying to hold the grouse at bay, and shows one male climbing all over Mary when she was holding Mabel and moving her a little to make her look more alive. And because of the close range at which Peter was able to film, there’s a uniquely cool little touch-when mosquitoes were buzzing around the head of one male, he snapped at and swallowed one. Just for fun, in the video this was replayed in slow motion.
If you ever have a chance to see one of Steve Wilson ‘ s Spruce Grouse presentation, don’t pass it up. You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.