The relationship blossomed in October in the elk hunting blind Pete Renkert had set up not far from his house in the woods near Priest River.
“I’m not what you’d call a serious elk hunter,” Renkert said. “I like to get up early during the season, walk out in the dark with a Thermos of coffee and doughnuts, sit in the blind with my rifle and wait there for sunrise, just in case an elk wanders through.”
His blind is like a foxhole surrounded by logs that can be used as a rifle rest.
On opening day, a grouse strolled in from nowhere and hopped up onto one of the logs.
This wasn’t a “fool hen,” the name given to the famously unwary spruce grouse, but rather a ruffed grouse, better known for the way they burst from an otherwise quiet forest with an explosion of wings that can scare the hell out of stalking hunters.
“It was cute, but I didn’t think anything of it,” said Renkert, a retired fishing tackle manufacturer. “I was in full camo. It’s not uncommon for tweety birds, coyotes and other creatures to come up close or even land on you when you’re sitting still in camouflage.”
But the ruff did not immediately fly off even when Renkert moved – or when he talked to it.
The bird returned the next time the North Idaho hunter sat in his blind.
And the next.
The blind dates soon became more interesting than the pursuit of elk.
With his wife’s approval, he named the grouse Loretta.
“One time I put a few berries on the log to see if she would eat, but the grouse ignored them,” he said. “I regretted that afterward because I didn’t want to be luring the bird in with bait. But it confirmed to me that something else was going on. She wasn’t looking for handouts.”
Over the course of several days, the relationship grew closer.
“I’d put out my hand. She’d come closer. I’d raise a finger and touch her breast, and she seemed to like it,” he said. “But the third time, she gave me a good peck on the hand.”
The games they played began taking a toll on Renkert’s lifestyle: “Normally I’d sit in the hunting blind for a while and then walk around looking for game. But with Loretta there, I found myself just staying in the blind. She’d stick around for three or four hours.”
Before long she was perching on his arm for 20 minutes at a time, softy purring.
“If I put my arm to the ground, the grouse would stay there and sit next to me,” Renkert said. “Seemed like she was lonely or something.
“If I didn’t pay attention to her, she’d walk away. If I called to her – ‘Loretta, get back here!’ – she’d come right back.”
The grouse learned to respond to Renkert’s “Hoochie Momma” elk call, which produces the plaintive mew of a cow elk.
She’d come right in like a jealous lover, he said: “Then I’d blow the call 2 feet away from her and she wouldn’t flinch. She’d just stare at me.”
As in most affairs, there were moments of tension, sacrifice and disappointment.
“After 20 or 30 hours spent with a grouse perched on my arm or sitting next to me, I missed out on getting a shot at the only elk I’ve seen in 10 years – because a grouse was in the way,” Renkert said, clearly compromised.
Later in the fall during deer season, Renkert would go out to the blind late in the day to look for whitetails moving at sunset.
The afternoon schedule didn’t work for Loretta. “She wouldn’t come around in the evening, although she’d come in almost any time of day when I started my chain saw,” he said. “She’d show up and come right in within 3 feet of the saw and just stare at me.
“She seems to like the sound of my ATV, too.
“Maybe it’s because it sounds like a ruffed grouse drumming.”
When the snow piled up for good in the woods in December, Loretta disappeared for the winter.
“I figured that was that,” Renkert said. “I mean, I didn’t expect it to last forever.”
He saw grouse now and then, as he always has, but when Renkert would call, they would thunder away like normal ruffed grouse.
“I’d sort of get my hopes up and then, boom, they’d be gone,” he said.
In early March, he was driving his ATV down the gravel lane from his house when a ruffed grouse flushed from the woods above and flew down the small creek right at him.
“I slammed on the brakes, hopped off and sat on the ground,” Renkert said. “Lo and behold, it was Loretta.
“After three months away, she ran up to me, cooing or purring or whatever you call it.
“This time she was really excited. She ran all over my legs. It was great to have her back.”
Bad news was delivered when Renkert and his wife returned to Priest River in April after a six-week trip out of the region.
“A neighbor came up very solemn-like and told me he found Loretta dead in the road,” Renkert said. “It was my fear that the dumb grouse would come running to say hello to somebody in a car and get run over.
“Everybody around here knew about Loretta. None of my neighbors would shoot a ruffed grouse now. I felt sad.”
The next morning he walked down the lane looking for closure. He called “Loretta!” and down she flew, as usual, along the little wooded creek that drains from the area near his blind down to the driveway lane.
“She’s friendlier than ever,” Renkert said last week, noting that he’s had even more opportunity for observation into her behavior.
“She’s always near that creek bottom, so apparently that’s her territory,” he said.
“She takes a crap about every 20 minutes,” he added. “She likes to drop little green presents on my pants or jacket.”
If Renkert goes to the creek area, calls Loretta and sits on the ground, the grouse will run through the woods, scurry up to attack his hand or foot a few times and then crawl up his leg or arm.
“She likes to perch on my arm and play the rock-the-grouse game,” he said. “I just swing her back and forth as though she’s swaying on the branch of a tree.”
Sometimes she continues up onto Renkert’s shoulder or back and gives him a little a peck.
“That’s why I wear gloves, hat and safety glasses,” he said. “I’m not taking any chances. She can be a little rough.
“When I leave on the ATV – she’s never been the first to leave – Loretta rushes pell-mell at me. If I go too fast, she will fly to catch up. She’ll follow me like a puppy.
“Sometimes she’ll go in front of the ATV – this grouse likes to play chicken.”
When Renkert continues out of the creek area, Loretta stops, watches him go, and melts into the forest.
“I called experts at the Ruffed Grouse Society and they said the grouse is exhibiting a territorial imperative thing,” Renkert said.
A society spokesman also gave him some startling insight.
“Turns out my Loretta is actually a Loren,” he said, noting the longer central tail feathers and the solid black band across them.
“I’m retired,” he said, trying to remain positive. “I don’t want the responsibility of a young family. I would have ended the relationship if there had been chicks. It wouldn’t be good to raise a family of human-loving grouse.”
Renkert said he’s come to terms with the fact that few ruffed grouse live longer than two years and that the territorial imperative of a male isn’t likely to last that long.
But he’s still clearly uncomfortable with the fact that their relationship is just a guy thing.
“I still call him Loretta,” Renkert said.