This morning I met her by the barn sitting on a cedar fence regarding me with one shimmering marbled eye, a little spiked crown on her head. A moment later two tiny balls of feathers exploded out of a tangled mass of blackberries below her. The fluff balls flew in between the cracks of the fence disappearing into what I knew must be a bird haven because I had recently piled a lot of brush back there. The fact that these nestlings could fly told me they were about two weeks old.
“Good morning,” I whispered as the mother continued to watch me. Behind the fence I heard a number of teeny voices peeping. Into the quiet space between the mother and I, arose the realization that this bird knew me well and had probably been watching me all spring. Normally, when a human surprises a mother with chicks the adult puts on a show, taking immediate flight and then dragging a wing on the ground behaving as if it is broken. In this manner the adult desperately hopes to lure the predator away from her chicks. Even so, few nestlings make it to adulthood. The male doesn’t parent at all.
Last April the male began his insistent month long drumming from his usual place beneath the house in the woods. Not too long afterwards I glimpsed what I hoped was a female grouse feeding near the bird feeder a number of times. It is virtually impossible to tell the sexes apart unless they are courting. Then the male raises his neck ruff and spreads out his magnificent black – banded tail displaying for his would be mate. If I was right and the bird that was wandering in my yard was a female I fervently hoped she would nest in my new brush pile, but I also knew that her territorial choices varied from year to year.
Unlike the male who stays in the same small territory all his life, as long as there is a water source, the females wander. After a couple of weeks I lost sight of the grouse and assumed she had chosen a spot to nest further away.
Ruffed grouse, or partridge, as they are sometimes called, are the number one game bird in Maine although their numbers have dropped nearly 60 percent throughout the US. Maine maintains the last stable population. Grouse are peaceful woodland dwellers and very easy to shoot if seen. Their primary protection is the leafy brown coloring that blends well with the forest floor. It’s impossible to describe the complexity of designs on the feathers of this bird. A shimmering iridescent tail feather, flight feather or breast feather look as if they belong to different birds. A thousand shades of brown inked in ebony cannot begin to describe such beauty. Whenever I see one I am transfixed. They look as if they belong to the earth with their glorious rounded bodies, so it is always with surprise when I see an adult in flight. At night they roost in the dense branches of spruce and fir and feast on buds, flowers, insects and tender vegetable shoots, depending upon the season.
Because it was just a few days away from the summer solstice I had been on the lookout for some animal or bird to help me mark this turning. Now I was certain that the presence of the mother grouse was the sign I was looking for. Every year there is something.
Although I rarely know, at least initially, what these appearances might signify I pay close attention and remain patient. There is always a relationship between the animal I see and what is happening in my life even if I have no idea what it could be.
I recalled that the partridge was associated with my favorite Greek goddess. Artemis, was the Virgin Goddess of the Wilderness, animals, vegetation, and the moon. She was also the goddess of the hunt; in some versions she slays the hunter, Orion. Definitely a Woman’s Goddess! What I liked best about Artemis besides her wilderness aspect was that she protected women who were vulnerable during birthing and also initiated young girls into adulthood. I suspected she honored the Ruffed grouse, even if she hunted them.
The fact that this particular bird was nesting so close to the house gave me something magical to look forward to during the hot, and no doubt, too dry summer ahead, not my favorite season.
I was still standing there when the grouse suddenly dropped behind the fence and much to my surprise re-appeared in the high grasses as I was walking down to the house. I counted eight chicks as I watched the little family making their way down to the brook. To travel in the open during the middle of the day reinforced my belief that this mother understood that I was no threat. Still, not wanting to frighten the fuzzy fluff balls I decided to go indoors and watch the family through the window with binoculars.
While mother looked on, the little ones took low flights over two foot ferns to reach an area of the brook that has a natural beach. Each chick took a bath, shaking russet feathers vigorously while mama stood watch from the top of the hill. What a good mother!
I hoped to take a picture but that bird knew I was watching from indoors and as soon as I got my camera out she disappeared into the foliage! When she reappeared down by the stream she led her children on a leisurely walk along a narrow woodland path, allowing them to peck at rich moist humus, no doubt snacking on protein rich insects before re- crossing the brook.
Before the little ones climbed the hill the mother flew back to her watchtower to comb the landscape for predators. Once the family was together again they all disappeared into thick foliage. Later on, I left a little bowl of cracked corn by the barn to supplement their evening diet and as an offering of my gratitude.
Watching this little mother caring for her children so diligently made me think of my own nerve wracking vigilance as a young mother (I didn’t realize then I suffered from PTSD) and all the women who devote so much of their lives to caring for the young with such care and compassion. I also knew that no matter how hard this grouse would work to provide for and care for her children in the end, nature would determine the outcome. Some years I had seen a mother grouse lose all her nestlings, reminding me that letting go was the hardest part of being a mother. I recalled a phase of Gibran’s that said something to the effect that your children do not belong to you; they are life’s longing for itself. In a few days the solstice sun will pass and imperceptibly a slow descent will begin. In a couple of months the night sky will once again be filled with stars by mid evening. The Green Corn Goddess will be gifting those of us in the far north with the first fruits and vegetables… The little mother, if she is fortunate, will be encouraging her surviving chicks to disperse, and I will be letting go.