by Cris Peck | January 2016
Naturally, we have wildlife encounters while conducting monitoring visits and stewardship activities. We’ve seen elk (wapiti), black bear, bobcats, coyotes, and the occasional cougar signs. Generally, we don’t feel threatened by wildlife on our properties; they’re just part of our work environment. The big mammals are seldom seen and, if they appear, they promptly turn tail and run. But this is a story about an encounter that made us all nervous and put us on edge. We had to protect volunteers as well as ourselves from this wily animal: a Ruffed Grouse. Yes, you read that correctly.
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) are small, pheasant-like birds that live in forest-interiors, feeding on insects and seeds. If you’re hiking in the summer and hear what almost sounds like an engine trying to start, that’s likely the ‘drumming’ of an enamored male grouse. It’s a deep, guttural noise that starts slow and progressively gets faster and faster. The drumming is created by a rapid beating of the wings and, in grouse culture; the loudest drummer is most likely to attract a female. Male Ruffed Grouse are also fiercely territorial. Now this is where the story begins.
The Yelm Food Bank and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters have donated 30 bales of burlap coffee bags to the Land Trust—almost 30,000 bags! Each bale weighes about a ton and contains anywhere from 800 to 1,000 bags. We employ these as a biodegradable weed block for new tree and shrub plantings. In the summer, vegetation grows aggressively and, unaided, young seedlings face fierce competition for sunlight and nutrients. In a way, burlap serves as a bodyguard to our plantings until they can establish themselves. We also use the bags for control of Reed Canary Grass – a non-native invasive grass that can grow over 6 feet tall and dominate riparian areas. When placed on the young sprouts, the burlap bags can be really effective in managing this problematic weed.
You may be asking, “How do we install the bags?” Well, it took us a while to figure this out. We eventually went with gardening staples, but for the first work party we used wooden stakes. We cut holes in the corners of the burlap and, using rubber mallets, drove the stakes into the ground to secure everything in place. We may have literally ruffled some feathers through all this commotion because that day we met our friend, the Ruffed Grouse.
The grouse spent the morning following volunteers around—a harmless, cute spectacle. While the group was there he wouldn’t come too close, but once the volunteers went home that day, all bets were off. Suddenly confident in his authority, the grouse charged us, biting our heels and pants, chasing us down the trail and chest-bumping our legs. This was his territory and we were unwanted visitors. The stake pounding must have resembled the male’s drumming because this little 8 inch tall bird was not happy, and he wasn’t backing down. In fact, we were backing down. He chased our work truck all the way down the access road. He won that day.
Fast forward a few weeks to one of the largest planting events we’ve ever hosted. We had over fifty volunteers at this site, and the grouse was on full alert. We had to plant in pairs: one person on guard against the grouse while the other planted. If you stooped down to plant, the bird would lunge at your face or attack your legs. No one was hurt, but by the end of the event everyone was aware of our feathered friend. Hardy volunteers backed down when confronted by a flurry of flapping wings and Charly and I took on a new role that day – Grouse Coordinator.
We came to call our grumpy planting companion “Oscar the Grouse”. He participated in several work parties that winter and accompanied a group of NatureMapping volunteers in the spring. We haven’t seen Oscar in several months, but if you’re out in Yelm be careful; you may find yourself in Oscar’s territory.