When Grouse Attack
By Andrew Vietze
Created Jul 25 2007 - 12:04pm
The call came in to headquarters at 2:35 in the afternoon. A 37-year-old lawyer from Bangor had suffered an anxiety attack on tall and imposing Doubletop mountain. His panic had caused him to pass out on multiple occasions, and he was requesting assistance from rangers. Oh, and he was being attacked by a killer grouse.
This was a few years ago, but I was reminded of it recently by a number of small animal-kingdom incidents. You see, this is the time of year when we meet the kiddies, when every other animal in the boreal forest seems to whelp and we have little ones running wild all over the place. When babies are about, we who live in the woods get to see a lot of unusual things. Like attack grouses.
Babies are everywhere. In the past couple of years, I've seen all sorts of Mutual of Omaha kinds of stuff - somersaulting bear cubs, six-inch minks chasing their mom along the shoreline, flotillas of tiny mergansers, wrestling fox kits, deer fawns with their spots on that collapse on their new legs, and the amazing Jurassic-like transformation of about a billion tadpoles. Walking to my camp recently a fox smaller than a house cat charged me with his most ferocious squeak when we met on a narrow trail. We both walked away unharmed.
Many of these new Baxter Park campers aren't quite sure of how to comport themselves. The other day ranger Bruce at Katahdin Stream, the brave ranger who rescued the Bangor man from his personal trauma atop Doubletop, was telling me about a brand-new bittern, still all fuzzy and white, who was adopting the classic American bittern pose - back tucked in, neck stretched out toward the sky - in an effort to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Slender and silent, he was desperately trying to blend in with his surroundings, one eye cautiously peering around him to see if his camouflage act was working. Of course, he was far from any cover, standing right in the middle of the park road.
Confused animals are all over these days. Last week, thanks to a new moose calf, I had a cow drive my truck down the road. I was on my way to Kidney Pond and came to Maynard's Marsh, a beautiful bog on the Daicey road where the woods finally relent and allow a jaw-dropping look at Katahdin. This is the most reliable roadside place to spot moose in my area, and one was obligingly right there on the byway. It was a small calf, and I slowed down for it, keeping a respectful distance. Then I saw mama step around it, and stand staring at me. After a moment, she pinned her ears back and dropped her head, and I knew I was in trouble. I'd seen my own mother give me this look in the past. She then proceeded to march toward me, and I put the truck in reverse and backed up. She stopped; I thought all was well. Then she put her head down and came at me again. I backed up some more. Finally, she was satisfied that I was no threat, and she put her nose in the air, looked at her little one, and then walked off into the woods. I was glad, mostly, that she didn't decide to stave up my new park truck. I knew I would never hear the end of it from my fellow rangers. Especially Bruce.
I found this mother's concern for her new one kind of amusing, only because to make room for it she had to drive off her yearling a few weeks earlier. Shoo it away. Tell it git. And where do these moose go when they are own their own for the first time? They hit the road, naturally. Every year we have the befuddled moose on the road phenomenon. You'll be driving along in your park truck and you'll come across a yearling blocking the way, like the bittern only forty-seven times larger, and it'll look at you a moment unsure of it's best course of action. Then it will politely turn and trot down the road, and it always looks like he's working hard to keep all six legs going in the right direction, as if mom forgot to mention before she kicked him out that he only has four.
And then he's off. And he runs, occasionally glancing back to see just what it is you're doing, and he runs. And runs. And runs. And it becomes a hazard because, slow and respectful though you may be going, he doesn't get out of the road and there's always a chance you'll drive him around a corner into another vehicle. So you stop and wait a while and then resume your drive, and inevitably you catch up with him. He looks back, sees you there, and starts up again on the trot, almost as if playing chase. This can go on for miles. And miles. Classic stuff.
Not nearly as classic though as the grouse incident, which none of the rangers involved will ever forget. The Katahdin Times' account of the story sums up the tale: "A grouse recently chased and pecked at a Bangor lawyer for about a quarter mile at Baxter State Park."
The Bangor barrister was out for a short hike and encountered more than he wanted to handle. To escape the bird he went up the mountain, and then fainted from panic. "Shortly after he gained consciousness he reported seeing a bear, ran off the trail, and experienced another anxiety attack. The man passed out again." The paper goes on to say that the bear passed out. No, it doesn't really. But it might well have - they are more afraid of us than we are of them.
A pair of rangers was dispatched to fetch the gentleman, who was pacing atop the mountain when they arrived. He made it down safely. Though he didn't want to walk through the section of trail where the attack occurred.
The bird, of course, was not just being mean. It wasn't that she had something against lawyers. She was protecting her nest. Each animal adopts its own method of defense. The bitterns hide. The moose pins back her ears. The little fox charges. The grouse pecks.
At this time of year, it's up to us to watch out.
Andy Vietze is a Maine State Park Ranger and is stationed at Daicey Pond, Baxter State Park. He is also a contributing editor to Down East.