There are times, especially early in a season, when forest grouse – Dusky, Spruce, Ruffed – have yet to recognize that almost everything loves the taste of grouse. Nearly 70% of these birds will not see a second year. The short hop to the nearest tree seems the earliest learned evasion tactic which can be effective with a host of predators. But it leaves hunters with the Treed Grouse Dilemma.
I like to believe there once was a wise old coot, I imagine at the start of the 20th century when market hunting was on the decline, who declared shooting stationary game birds unsporting. It’s rare in the hunting world that a declaration making things more difficult still becomes broadly accepted. Shooting a moving target is most definitely a greater challenge than a sitting duck. There is no regulation against shooting stationary birds — swatting or skillet shooting as it’s often called. But that wise old coot put an idea in hunters’ heads and in large part it persists today. The majority of bird hunters only shoot birds on the wing.
A grouse sitting in a tree puts upland hunters in an awkward position. There’s nothing to stop one from shooting that bird on sight except the idea planted in our brain by some old coot. Though, it doesn’t seem challenging or sporting. That leaves most of us begging for that grouse to take wing, absolve our conscience and solve the dilemma for us.
It’s a known fact the harder you wish a bird to fly, the more likely it is to sit and stare.
The burnished snap of hungry shotguns, dropping tailgates, creaking knees and the stench of old dogs and older men marinated in bourbon tends to drive away forest game. Most wildlife instinctively head for the next zip code wanting no part of this upland calamity. Why do some grouse perfectly capable of long distance escape choose to stay behind?
Let me be the first to admit there was a day when a grouse in a tree would be invited to dinner. It would still have to fly for the opportunity to decline. But a well-placed stick or a rock can generally roust a bird from a perch. The odds of hitting a bird after identifying the closest viable projectile, throwing and trying to guess a direction of evasion…… infinitesimal.
If birds on the wing truly are the sporting pursuit, then birds forced to wing from a perch no longer seems a sport — besides the pitching practice of rocks.
I watch these treed birds and try to figure out exactly why they don’t fly farther, to the next drainage, the next county. It seems effortless enough. And I notice they are inspecting us too. Most of the time they are young birds that have no idea what this upland band is and they appear intent on learning more. Seeking knowledge at the risk of personal peril. They jump to trees for safety, and from most grounds-based predators, that’s likely effective.
So I solved the dilemma. If a grouse makes it safely to a tree…. now, it’s safe.
I decided to no longer try to force them to a perception of sporting. I have too much kinship with these birds. I’m trying to understand forest grouse as they try to comprehend the dogs and I. Hopefully we come to a mutual understanding that they will offer a truly sporting, fleeting chance in the future.
And I no longer feel that judgmental gaze of a treed bird while I flail about in search of the appropriate stick to huck.