Grouse, Minnesota, February 15, 1997
in coastal Southern California, where frost on the grass
was a novelty, and where for a winter treat people would
drive to the mountains to see the snow. Kids would pack
the white stuff onto the car's hood and bumpers and hope
to get back before it all melted so they could show their
sort of history stays with a person, and maybe it's the
reason that even though I now live in Iowa, I still think
winter is fun, and the deeper the snow, the better.
when I got a chance to join a group of Iowa birdwatchers
who were going to Minnesota for four days of winter birding,
I happily met them before dawn on a frozen morning and
headed toward Duluth, beside myself with anticipation
about finding the wonderful birds that can be seen only
in the far north during winter.
Owls, for example, come south in winter from the Arctic
tundra, the treeless land between the polar ice and the
great boreal forest of Canada and Alaska. But Snowy Owls
seldom get to Iowa. The closest place that an Iowan can
count on seeing them is Minnesota, and even there only
in winter. For years I had been longing to see a Snowy
Owl. But that was not my only target. I'd made a list
of potential "life birds," birds I'd never seen
anywhere before but hoped to find in Minnesota.
Sometimes people ask me why I want to see
a bird I've never seen before, if it's an acquisitive
impulse, or perhaps a competitive urge. I don't think
it's quite like that. For me, each bird is the embodiment
of the land in which it lives, an ambassador of its home
and habitat. Seeing a bird that lives in a special place,
I feel as if I've met the spirit of that place and made
friends with it.
the top of my Minnesota wish list was the Spruce Grouse,
a chicken-like bird that lives in the remote coniferous
forests of the far north. In contrast to Snowy Owls, Spruce
Grouse do not migrate. Most of them stay in the same area
all their lives. The few individuals who do travel move
no more than ten miles from where they spend the winter
to their summer home, and they cover that distance by
walking! This is a bird that will never wander into your
backyard. To see it, you have to go to its stronghold.
Grouse pass the summer on the forest's mossy ground, eating
snowberries, fern tips, and the occasional spider. In
winter they stay up in the trees, where they fuel their
body through the brutal winter exclusively by feeding
on the needles of spruce and other conifers.
Spruce Grouse is good to eat, and because it does not
fear people, it does not thrive around human habitation.
It is so trusting that hunters have been able to walk
up to it and bag it with a stick.
has ever been seen in Iowa.
We had good luck in Minnesota.
We did find a Snowy Owl, perched with its back to us on
a tower at a power plant. Maybe the unobstructed view
of the treeless, snow-covered landscape reminded the owl
of its tundra home. To me it seemed as if the bird had
brought the inaccessible Arctic with it, just far enough
south that we could meet it. The big white owl pivoted
its head around toward us, looked at us through half-closed
yellow eyes for 20 seconds, and then turned its gaze to
something else. It was a moment of contact. It was enough.
the third day we had found nearly all the birds that we'd
come for, except for the Spruce Grouse. For that we had
to leave the motel in Duluth long before daylight and
drive almost to the Canadian border.
dawn came up, I found a new use for a credit card, shaving
my frozen breath from the van windows in little slivers
and curls of ice. Peeking out through the ephemeral clear
places on the glass, I had my first glimpses of the great,
silent North Woods of Minnesota. Spruces, firs, and other
evergreens thickly engulfed us. Great looping branches
draped our views, and all were loaded with snow, drenched
in white. It was a frozen Forest Primeval, and it made
me feel as if I were moving in a Nordic myth.
been advised that the best time to find the grouse was
before 9 A.M. It's also the only time to avoid the traffic.
This forest is intensively logged, and throughout the
day logging trucks dominate the narrow, icy roads. We
hoped we would find the birds before the logging trucks
roads are an excellent place to see Spruce Grouse, because
of the gravel. Lacking teeth, the grouse, like many other
birds, eat small rocks, which lodge in their gizzard and
grind around with the food to break it down. After each
storm, when the roads are graded and sanded, the birds
come for the grit.
hours we drove slowly back and forth in the region that
the grouse were known to frequent, but to no avail. Soon
the trucks woke up and came screaming down on us, shaking
everything. It would seem there was no room for them to
pass, but somehow, without ever slowing down, they got
by us. Life in a rifle barrel.
mid morning the sun was shining at us sideways through
every chink in the trees, and we were trying to get used
to the idea that we might not find our grouse.
suddenly, around a bend, there was a male Spruce Grouse,
right in the middle of the road. We pulled over to the
side to make sure everyone got a look. We could see the
bright red comb above his eye, and the gleaming black
breast. We planned to get out and try for a closer look
on foot as soon as everyone had seen as much as we could
from inside the van.
a logging truck came up from behind and roared, much too
fast, toward the poor grouse. "Fly away!" we
were all shouting, but the bird pecked at the road unconcernedly
as the truck bore down on it and concealed it from our
groaned, "Oh no, there goes my life Spruce Grouse!"
We watched with fascinated horror until it was clear there
was no longer any chance for the bird to escapethe truck
was too close to it, moving too fast.
in myths, impossible things happen, and somehow the bird
was in the air above the truck, wings beating for the
woods, tail spread in a beautiful black fan with a light
band across the end like a ribbon. The field guides say
this band is chestnut, but with the morning sun shining
through it, I assure you, it was pure gold.
1998 Diane Porter
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Photo of the Spruce Grouse is by Ralph Lieske,
who graciously allowed us to show it here. Click the photo
for a bigger picture.