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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why are ruffed grouse taking a shine to retired North Idaho men?

Ruffed grouse have been taking a shine to graying men in North Idaho.

Newspaper stories have featured two men who’ve developed close relationships with the normally shy forest grouse.

The wild adult birds have joined the men for walks, perched on their arms and waited in the woods seemingly with the enthusiasm of puppies for the men to return the next day.

Both of the retired men were so smitten with their new “girlfriends,” they gave them names.

Pete Renkert of Priest River named his feathered pal Loretta.

Jim Powell of Rose Lake named his companion bird Missy.

The names stuck, even after the men learned their ruffed grouse playmates were guys.

Renkert’s story was featured in The Spokesman-Review in July 2010. Powell’s was published in the Coeur d’Alene Press in October 2011.

Loretta first greeted Renkert as he sat in an elk-hunting blind comprised of a hole surrounded by logs on his property.

On the opening day of elk season in 2009, the grouse strolled in from nowhere and hopped up onto one of the logs next to the hunter.

This wasn’t a “fool hen,” the name given to the famously unwary spruce grouse of higher elevations. It was a ruffed grouse, better known for the way the species bursts from an otherwise quiet forest with an explosion of wings that can scare the dickens 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. The bird would sidle up and let Renkert tickle its breast feathers.

“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.”

When some experts looked at photos of Loretta, they pointed out the longer central tail feathers and the solid black band across them and broke the news that Loretta was a Loren.

“I still call him Loretta,” Renkert said, clearly having trouble with the gender dilemma.

“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.”

Renkert learned to wear gloves, hat and safety glasses when he went into Loretta’s creek area.

“She can be a little rough,” he said, noting the bird would occasionally peck at him while sitting on his shoulder, and leave little moist calling cards on his sleeve.

Although the grouse disappeared for a couple of months during the dead of the first winter, it returned in the spring of 2010 and became even more responsive to Renkert. Loretta showed up every time he rode his ATV or walked down by the creek on his property.

Last winter and into spring of 2011, Loretta took a liking to Renkert’s wife, Joanie.

“He’d come out and walk with me when I went snowshoeing,” she said last week, noting that the bird was familiar with her because she’d been photographing him with her husband numerous times.

“Loretta was great fun to watch in the winter because he’d get up on the snow berm along the road and throw snow up in the air with his head. He would play.”

Powell’s relationship with the ruffed grouse near Rose Lake is almost identical. The grouse met him on a portion of his 34-acre property, gradually warmed to a friendship, and has been there to hop on his arm and follow him around almost every day for nearly three years when he shows up on his ATV.

“She’s my little buddy. We talk all the time,” he told the Press, acknowledging later that she’s a he.

While expert birders in the Coeur d’Alene Audubon Society had not witnessed this behavior, wildlife biologists associated with the Ruffed Grouse Society said they were not surprised.

“Actually this is not as rare of an occurrence as you might think,” said Gary Zimmer, the society’s biologist in Wisconsin.  ”I get reports of ‘tame’ ruffed grouse each year across their range and have seen three individual birds exhibit this ‘strange’ behavior myself.”

Several factors associated with grouse make this possible, he said:

• Male grouse in particular are mostly solitary individuals at least once they seek out and set up their small territory, which usually covers 6-12 acres.

• Ruffed grouse are notably territorial birds that challenge intruders. 

• They often let other males know they “own” the area by doing their drumming sound at various times of the year.

• Hearing the drumming sound stimulates an established grouse to come out and protect its territory. Most of the “tame” birds have responded to a sound that is close to the drumming sound, such as the noise from an ATV, chain saw or old truck with a bad muffler.

“We assume the drumming-like noise elicits a response by the male grouse to go and confront this intruder,” Zimmer said. ”When he finds its not a competing grouse he checks things out. As long as he isn’t shot (and eaten), he might adopt a new buddy to escort around his territory.

“The birds I’ve encountered would only follow me to certain spots, which I suspected was the edge of their territories, and then they’d leave. 

“Also most of the birds that exhibit this behavior have been males, and that would make sense as males are more territorial than females.”

Andy Weik, Ruffed Grouse Society regional wildlife biologist for New England, also said he hears numerous cases of ruffed grouse forming bonds with humans each year.

He suspects that the grouse drop their guard after the first territorial standoffs simply because humans walk upright, as do grouse.

“I haven’t noticed grouse acting this way toward four-legged animals, such as a fox or fisher – probably because it would end badly quickly for the grouse,” he said. 

Nevertheless, all of these relationships have a way of ending sadly, or at least too soon, since ruffed grouse normally don’t live more than two or three years.

Powell’s “Missy” is still giving him great joy and companionship after nearly three years of forays into the bird’s territory.

But after a similar period for the Renkerts, the bond was broken this spring.

“Loretta stopped showing up in March,” Joanie Renkert said.

“It’s a miracle she lived out there as long as she did with all of the hungry critters around and above her,” said Pete, still struggling with the gender thing.

“We look back at it as a once-in-a-lifetime treat, and we both got to experience it,” Joanie said.