Outdoors

In search of 'king of game birds'

The Nature Call: Ruffed grouse is hard to find these days in Iowa

A boy takes advantage to rest his legs and reflect in between climbs in the hills of Allamakee County on a hunt for grou
A boy takes advantage to rest his legs and reflect in between climbs in the hills of Allamakee County on a hunt for grouse. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
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I reminded they had extra clothes and shoes in the truck to allay their hesitation to ford the cold and swift creek.

This was our last obstacle.

I shouted, “Man up! And walk through like a conqueror.” Just as quickly, I regretted that slogan of toxic masculinity and quickly restated, “Cross like a viking! They were all tough.”

Our obstacle was, French Creek. The objective had been ruffed grouse. My reward was a rediscovered appreciation of briar-proof pants — and that just a glimmer of hope is a wellspring of motivation.

Once plentiful in Iowa, the “King of Game Birds,” the ruffed grouse, is scarce. He didn’t change, we did.

He lorded over the Driftless area’s valley farms and wooded hills. More regal than the verbose turkey, the ruffed grouse held his tongue and let his spring display speak for itself. So clever he learned to play drums to accompany his rituals.

A creature of renewal, he favored the newly disturbed woodlots with thickets of young trees, aspens if you please. But contemporary woodlot practices eschew regular cutting or grazing. Recreation owners favor heavy timber — the better on which to hang a tree stand or hide a second home.

According to the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union’s 2019 Fall Field Report, no one reported our native ruffed grouse, but 263 other species made the book.

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But I’m a man of faith. I knew the DNR had tried to reinvite the grouse here and there with prescribed cutting. The ruffed grouse is a hearty bird. Surely for the intrepid hunter, the possibility of an exciting flush at one’s feet was possible. With enough suffering perhaps I would earn an Audubon sighting. And prove they persisted, with a plumb bird in the game pouch.

Alas, I knew I would have to limit the scope of suffering to what my young companions could endure. Since they’d never experienced the thunder of feathered rocket coursing skyward from underfoot, their ambition was tempered.

The boys took turns toting the .22, lest a squirrel got careless. But grouse was the vision, and a distant patch of mapped clear-cut was the goal. I got a kind tip that Area 41 was a place to search.

Instead of a hair shirt, I took turns ferrying oversized boys on my back. My shoulders strained as my soft bare feet avoided the sharp stones of French Creek. The suffering commenced.

We climbed the hill, it was extra steep and extra tall. How can such a short distance on the map become so far afoot? In Allamakee County the truth lies in the contour lines.

I called for frequent pauses, to look and listen for squirrels as well as enjoy the colorful leaves. The sweat rolling down my neck betrayed the truth.

We climbed and descended, climbed and descended again. Poking along, a trio of nimrods, we bumped deer while trying to practice stealth. We climbed again.

A gray squirrel posed for me at the head of our column. I motioned for a boy, but Mr. Gray evidently only performed for audiences of one and vanished before a fresh face could try out his version of the deadeye. We descended and climbed.

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I called for a halt to reorientate the party. The party promptly went supine to rest their legs and stare through the canopy. With no electronic distractions, I declared it just. And then three bodies merged with the duff.

Refreshed and reorientated, I prepared to lead the group south. But first there was a fearsome stretch of hillside brambles.

Aldo Leopold said there were two types of hunting: regular hunting and grouse hunting. He also said to seek out the “red lanterns” of October — the bramble patches that attracted grouse with protection and food. This patch was still quite green.

In soft cotton clothes, I could only go so far. My sons would’ve balked. Had I suffered enough? Might Mr. Ruff be hiding here?

My penance was incomplete, the bramble patch wasn’t ready, and the aged clear cut we sought would have to wait until another time.

I turned the column north, discretion being the better part of valor. We marched down a mostly dry ravine. Millions of years of runoff had only eroded the hard hill so much.

We heard and then saw French Creek, our transition from one world to the next, wild to civilization.

I think I’ll return in the spring to try again. Vernal grouse drumming is such a special sound. And I won’t need to see him to know he’s still there.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

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