Meet Fred... or Gary... or Buddy...: Ruffed grouse (with various names) adopts rural neighborhood as his own
LAKE JULIA—The bird is known to just about everyone who lives in these quiet lakeside houses, in this place where trees canopy dead-end roads, and blue jays get fat off store-bought peanuts. Mailboxes here are not a walk away but a drive away, clustered for the mail carrier's convenience at a fork near the main road, where the bird is known to wait camouflaged in the brown woods.
The Olsons call him Fred. Fred the grouse. There is disagreement about this name, but we'll get to that a little later. For now it is enough to know that the people here say this is no ordinary bird, that he is more pet than wild animal, that he will come hopping out the scratchy brush at the first sign of human life, especially if that life has brought food.
"Here, Fred. Come on, Fred. Come on." Helene Olson calls in a grandmother's lilting voice. In her glove she clutches bird seed. "Come out and show these people how nice you are."
She has just called him a shy stinker when he flaps into the open. He lands on the mailboxes where her husband, Del Olson, also holds bird seed.
"He doesn't like me as much as he likes Del," she confesses. "He just loves him."
The bird looks like a fat little football, his wings and chest a dusty white. He sort of hops from box to box, nibbling at Del's open hand.
He's an exceedingly sociable bird. He started poking around the woods here, 15 miles north of downtown Bemidji, sometime last fall. The neighbors say mid-September, but if the people here can't agree on a name, constructing a timeline is just about impossible.
Almost every day Fred is waiting when the Olsons and their neighbors get the mail. He maintains separate relationships with all of them, riding along with Del in his RTV, sitting in the wood pile as Randy Pederson chops away, climbing the ladder to see how Tim Hins is doing with those Christmas lights.
They've done a little research, a little digging. Tim's wife, Margaret Hins, talked with an expert who suspects he's about a year old, a ruffed grouse. Like most wild animals, ruffed grouse usually avoid people. During winter, most burrow into the snow for protection, biding their time until mating season in the spring. Others make friends with humans for no apparent reason.
"We call him Buddy," Margaret said. "He's Buddy or Gary or Earl or Fred, depending on who you ask."
The Olsons said they've heard someone call him Larry. The Pioneer could not confirm this.
By any name, he's a budding socialite in a place where people go out early to get the newspaper, but not without grabbing a fist of bird seed.
They feed him all sorts of things: apples, cracked corn, sunflower seeds. Helene said she once fed him without a glove, and he thought her finger was food. This, she said, from a person who's also been bitten by a chipmunk.
Margaret said Buddy is partial to peanuts—roasted, unsalted.
She said he was a little shy at first, always keeping just beyond arm's reach. He still doesn't like to be touched, but Margaret thinks he follows directions now. She said she can lead him up the steps of her deck with a little encouragement.
Some grouse really do act like this. The Olsons said they have relatives in Thief River Falls who know their own friendly grouse. Perhaps there's something birds like about this family. But that doesn't explain what's happening on the other side of Lake Julia.
Del and Helene's daughter lives over there, and so does a wild turkey. She has the droppings on her deck to prove it.
The people here have a needy bird, one that hops into the bed of your truck as you drive to work. But it could be worse.
Most birds, you don't worry about on cold days.
Margaret wonders if the grouse considers them family. It's called imprinting—like how a chick might waddle behind someone who shows it kindness, in the absence of its mother.
It will be spring soon, mating season, and this grouse has grown. Males around his age start to drum their wings, attracting females. The boys may wander, but it's the girls who come to them, looking for the best place to lay eggs and raise chicks.
It might be worth mentioning to any love interests, this place has peanuts.