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The unexpected and untimely passing of a great bird

Ruffed grouse
Daniel Arndt/Flickr Creative Commons
Ruffed grouse

About six o’clock one evening, as we were about to sit down to dinner, there came from the other end of the house a loud thunk, as though something had hit a window. I stepped outside to see what the noise was. At first I saw nothing but a few curled feathers drifting casually along one of the roof eaves. Then, on the ground below the bedroom window, I spotted the limp form of a ruffed grouse.

Even in death, its brown, black, and white-flecked plumage was perfect camouflage, blending in with last year’s leaves and litter. The grouse had curious, leathery eyelids that seemed to close upwards from the bottom, like a snake’s. Stuck on the window, about twelve feet above ground level, a small spot of feathers showed where the bird had struck. It must have been flying directly at the window at considerable speed, for the neck was not only broken, but completely wrenched open, exposing the crop.

Birds crashing into windows are not unusual, and over the years we have had our share. Putting silhouettes of hawks or owls on picture windows will help prevent these avian accidents, but not completely, for sometimes birds will simply fly into the sides of houses for no apparent reason. The so-called “crazy flights” of grouse, for instance, are well known, though they usually occur in the fall. At such times many immature grouse will suddenly take off in a whirring explosion of wings, flying headlong through the woods like miniature runaway locomotives. During such flights the grouse, usually expert at twisting and dodging through the thickest tangles of briars and branches, but when flushed, rushes blindly forward and frequently collides with posts, tree trunks, and houses.

Some ornithologists think this phenomenon is a dispersal technique, designed to break up large grouse families at the end of summer so that young males can seek out and establish new territories. Another more dramatic theory suggests that the young birds are thrown into a panic by the falling of the autumn leaves, which the young have never seen before. Since many natural enemies of grouse are airborne predators, such as hawks and owls, the immature bird presumably takes the falling, curved, bristle-tipped oak leaves for a thousand descending claws, and it understandably panics. If there’s anything to this idea, it must be a nightmare experience for the young grouse, a vision of universal predation, as though, walking across your lawn, all of the blades of grass turned suddenly into vipers.

But these “crazy flights,” whatever their origins, do not normally occur in spring. A more likely explanation for this casualty was that the grouse, seeing the sky and limbs of nearby trees reflected in the window glass, had taken it for an extension of the woods from which it had just emerged, and had been killed instantly.

I took up the bird and brought it into the house, where we admired its beauty and commiserated over its untimely death. I was sorry to have been even indirectly responsible for it, for grouse populations on the Cape have been declining drastically in recent decades due to the break-up of undisturbed woodland for development. We cannot spare any of the remaining ones, especially during the breeding season.

It was a sad and regrettable fate for such a proud, handsome bird. I carried it out into the woods and laid it gently on top of a stone wall as a kind of spring offering to whatever local foxes or coyotes might be emerging for a night’s hunt. Then I returned to the house and sat down to dinner.

This is Bob ’s last Cape Cod Notebook essay for a while. After nearly a quarter-century of doing these broadcasts, Bob feels it is time to take a break to refresh his vision of the natural world and its effect on human nature. Over the next few months, CAI will be rebroadcasting some of his favorite essays. We hope you enjoy them.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.