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Grouse, flying fast and reckless in the fall, are preparing for winter

Our outdoors columnist said grouse often fly off track as they become overcome with a desire to fly
OM 084 - Grouse foot
At this time of year a tranquil walk in the woods might be interrupted by a grouse. The foot of a grouse is examined here. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

It's just after a rain, and I'm walking along an old logging road, my boots absolutely silent as they press against the wet layers of fallen leaves. Tall poplars line each side of the roadway, their butter-yellow leaves spread thickly on the ground before me.

Brambles hang over the trail's edge and clutch at my clothing as I pass by. Occasionally a raspberry thorn catches my attention and then, with exaggerated annoyance, I stop, back up, and disengage it from my sleeve or pant leg.

The overcast sky diffuses the sunlight, making the soft light appear to come from all directions. The very recent rain has darkened tree trunks and coated the world in a sheath of dampness. It has also caused a myriad of autumn odours to fill the air, each rekindling a memory of other such outings.

The soft pecking of a woodpecker is heard within a brush pile of fallen branches. A small black and white woodpecker, a Downy, is foraging for insects which have started their hibernation under the loose bark. A dab of crimson is noted on the bird's head, indicating that this is a male (the females do not have this mark).

This tranquil walk is suddenly disturbed by two muffled explosions, one on each side of the trail.

I spin quickly towards the first, see nothing, then do a fast half-turn in the direction of the second "whoom", and see, for about a half second, a fast departing ruffed grouse with wings now held rigid as it banks around a hemlock and lands out of sight.

It takes a few seconds for the adrenaline in my system to subside. No matter how much time a person spends in the outdoors, that sudden and unexpected launch of a grouse is usually a startling experience.

These two were probably this year's young, seeking food amongst the tangled undergrowth, perhaps the clusters of the yellowish berries of poison ivy which they seem to cherish.

But really, what autumn outing is complete without at least one ruffed grouse being seen, or more likely, heard? (Notice that there is no 'l' in the word ruffed -- 'ruff' refers to the dark patch of feathers around the bird's neck. A 'ruffled' grouse infers to me that it has been hit by a car.)

These chicken-sized birds have been preparing for winter in a variety of ways. Quite noteworthy is the change which occurs with their feet, as each fall a special scaly fringe grows around each toe. This fringe acts as a snowshoe to help the bird move about in deep snow.

Grouse are subject to another survival technique. As autumn progresses, the young grouse are overcome with a desire to fly. And fly they do -- far, fast and reckless.

This ensures an adequate winter food supply for the adults that remain in the area, and provides a good genetic mix to the neighbourhood for next breeding season.

As these young grouse rocket blindly away from familiar home territory, they sometimes get into fatal predicaments.

Plate glass windows act as giant mirrors, reflecting the woods in great detail; or front and back windows line up, creating an 'opening' in the forest. Many of these thick windows have actually been broken, and many more grouse have died, as the birds disperse about the countryside.

A few years ago, while talking with some friends in a laneway of a house located near a wooded area, a 'football with wings' erupted out of the trees and flew hard and fast across the backyard towards our heads!

We dove for cover as the bird gained a bit of altitude, but it then crashed headlong into the basketball backboard. The grouse died upon impact but scored two points as it fell back through the hoop!

In the last three weeks, I've received calls from three homeowners about a 'hawk' that has hit their window. Upon a detailed description, the hawk has actually been a partridge. But I can see the confusion, as a grouse has a sharp curved beak and prominent talons. If you have such a find in your hands, now is the time to look at the feet to see the snowshoe scales that have formed.

When you get the chance to go for a quiet outing, enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of autumn. Maybe just stay away from big windows and basketball hoops.