It’s like being a fly on the wall, backstage at a concert hall. Watching a rock star as he practises his moves. I grin at how he struts, throwing each leg forward just so, planting each step with the utmost effect in mind. He throws his head back slightly as if to scan for the prettiest girl out there and swaggers along, pushing out his chest. Suddenly he turns his head and freezes. So do I, feeling like the voyeur I am – has he noticed me?
But no. The ruffed grouse fans his tail again and puffs up his neck feathers, his beady eyes almost choked out by his flared feather collar. He spreads his wings, pumping slowly at first, then gathers up his passions into a quickening drumbeat before strutting down the log again. His puffed-up feathers begin to wilt with disappointment when he pauses, eyeing the deserted underbrush for female grouse.
But apart from our chickens, I’m his only audience, weeding the barely thawed out garden. I wonder if the grouse has a crush on our hens. After all, they are scratching in the dirt a mere 10 metres from where he’s advertising for a girlfriend. The compost pile blocks their view of him but as far as I can tell, his wing pumping leaves them unimpressed. Small wonder: a couple of them have suffered so much from the attentions of our lecherous rooster that I’ve had to put him into solitary confinement. He’s become demented with lust and spends all day walking up and down the fence line that separates him from his harem.
Does the grouse ever sneak up to them when I’m not there, letting loose his thudding drum roll and fluffing out his neck feathers on the wild side of the chicken wire fence? I wonder what he makes of them, these big girls that never go anywhere, mysteriously spending their entire lives within a few square metres. But be it rooster or ruffed grouse, the hens have had it with the single track mind of guys for now, and as far as I can tell, the rooster doesn’t care about the drumming competition.
I dig my hands into the soil again, almost as thwarted in my attempts at weeding as the grouse is at mating. We’re both handicapped because we can’t find what we’re looking for. It’s too early yet, only a few shy blades of grass are sticking out of the raised beds, plus a few spears of fireweed. But the moist smell of rotting leaves, the slight aroma of mildew and wet earth is too hard to resist – I need to get my hands into the soil and at least go through the motions as if that could hasten the growth rate of everything.
Same with the grouse, apparently. The log below our compost pile on which the would-be lover is performing has been staging amorous grouse for years. In terms of success as a dating locale, it ought to rate rather low even among fool hens. It’s certainly hard to miss, seeing that the Strut and Drum Show is being held annually in the same place at the same time. But I have yet to detect any female grouse flocking to it. Could it possibly always be the same guy, a total loser at the mating game, harbouring an unnatural infatuation for his domesticated cousins? Why else would this one single log attract a strutting grouse every year when the forest floor is littered with them, even though this one is not a hotbed of female grouse activity?
While the grouse starts down his log again, still hopeful that a female might show up, I slide along the log wall of the garden bed, zeroing in on a tiny fleck of feathery green: yarrow. Not many of the few weeds I’ve found so far have ended up in the chicken bucket. Except for the grass, I pop it all into my mouth, this first harvest of the year. Another week and we can make pasta with fireweed and dandelion pesto.
Maybe the grouse employs the same reasoning: another week of drumming on the log, and for sure, a female ruffed grouse will appear. Especially now that there’s an article about him in the paper.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.