The Tale of Super Chicken

Most interactions we have with wildlife can be described as one-sided. We see an animal, they see us and then they flee. Rarely do we ever have a more substantive encounter. Despite hyped incidents in the media, real aggression directed at people by wildlife is rare and when it does happen it usually comes in the form of a bluff. Whether it’s a White-tailed Deer stomping its foot or a Garter Snake acting as if it’s going to strike, these bluffs are intended to make us back off. Almost invariably, after making their bluff the animal takes its leave. While sifting through reports for an article I was writing, I came upon a couple of accounts of Wild Turkeys acting aggressively toward people. One incident involved a belligerent turkey that pursued a mailman and even chased him back to his truck. Perhaps that turkey only wanted his mail, but it’s probably more likely he was mistaking the letter carrier for a rival turkey. I’m not sure if the mailman should be flattered or insulted by that. Another similar case involved a couple whose car was being hazed by a group of young male turkeys. The couple had seen the young Toms (AKA,“Jakes”) interacting with each other alongside a busy highway. When they pulled over to the side of the road to get a better look, the turkeys came in close and began circling the car. The occupants of the car were hesitant to drive away for fear of pushing the turkeys into traffic or running one over. For them, stepping out of the car was unthinkable. However, I wish they had tried it. I am curious to know how the turkeys would have reacted. Would they have treated the people like rival turkeys or would they have run off? I suspect the latter. In that case I think it was the car that the turkeys were picking a fight with. Of course these are isolated incidents and are not representative of how turkeys normally act.

In a previous article, I recounted an experience I had with a particularly aggressive Ruffed Grouse. Here I will tell the complete story of my experiences with the grouse I called “Super Chicken”. Prior to Super Chicken, my encounters with grouse had been numerous even though our native Ruffed Grouse is not an especially common bird. In fact their population has been in decline for the last half century. Regardless, they remain a game bird in New York State and are subject to a rather lengthy hunting season.  Although grouse are not often seen, the distinctive sound the male produces in spring is familiar to most outdoors people. The low pitched drumming sound is produced when the perched bird beats the air with his wings. The percussive beating sound starts out slow, gains speed and then abruptly tapers off. The grouse is also recognized by the sound their wings make when they startle and flush up from the ground. The rapid beating of wings lifts them off like a rocket and propels them 100 yards or more into the woods or brambles. When making a quick escape they go for distance rather than height. The Ruffed Grouse’s flights and landings appear controlled especially when compared to those of the Wild Turkey, which are haphazard at best. Indeed, when flying through tightknit forest situations, grouse twist and weave and are quite maneuverable.

I have found a few grouse nests over the years. They are simple scrapes on the ground but tend to be well hidden in brush or in a forest understory. The female takes full charge of incubation and chick rearing. During incubation she will occasionally leave the nest to feed. When she does she covers the eggs with leaves or other material. A female grouse is very protective of her young and will risk her own life to lure away a predator. When the chicks are threatened, she may perform a distraction display. This entails feigning a broken wing and/or dragging herself piteously on the ground, all while producing shrill wailing calls. This performance is intended to lure a predator into pursuing her and not her chicks. While the mother is creating her diversion, her cryptically plumaged chicks lay frozen on the ground. Becoming invisible is their main defense. After the danger passes, the mother grouse returns to collect her family. As for male grouse, they don’t need to bother with raising young or performing distraction displays. Their business is to defend territory, drum, and attract mates.

Only rarely will you come across a grouse that is aggressive to the point of chasing people or other animals. A couple of years ago there was one like this not far from the Utica Marsh. One person actually thought it was a Red-tailed Hawk coming at them from the ground. At the nature preserve we had a prolonged experience with a hyper-territorial grouse. I first met him in the fall of 2005 and we proceeded to have an odd relationship that spanned half a decade.

At the Spring Farm CARES Nature Sanctuary we’ve always kept a close eye on our borders. We do this to make sure our animal residents, human visitors, and workers are safe year-round and especially during the big-game hunting seasons. Although nowadays our property monitoring has become somewhat more high tech, for many years we did it only by physically patrolling our borders. Back then I would typically strike out on foot or sometimes on an ATV and cover the entire property perimeter over the course of a couple of hours. On one particularly frosty morning in mid-November, I walked up the trail through our largest field. Reaching the tree border at the top of the hill, I followed the trail south and alongside a westward facing line of trees. The tree line roughly marked the border between the sanctuary property and the neighbor’s land. I always paid close attention in that area since it tended to be where trespassing hunters came from. As I walked, I would scan beneath the trees and along an old collapsed stone wall. I was looking for any camouflage-clad person that may be poised to breech our line. That day, instead of seeing a man, I spied the stout form of a ground bird. It was a grouse and it was standing motionless on a large stone. As I passed, the bird hopped off his mossy perch and began trotting on a course parallel to my own. When I stopped, he stopped, and when I resumed, he resumed, and all the while his attention was laser focused on me. I walked another twenty feet and then turned back to see if he was still shadowing me; he wasn’t. He had melted back into the thicket. When I came back through the same area a few days later, what I took to be the same bird was there again. Initially he did almost exactly the same thing as before, but this time he didn’t disappear. Instead, he jumped out onto the access road and confronted me. Was this a holdup? Did he want my valuables? The unlikely assailant stood before me with his gaze fixed on my feet. He was making a rapid and high pitched “purt, purt, purt, purt…” call and seemed to be trying to pick a fight with my left boot. My boot’s lack of response to his challenge had the effect of increasing the bird’s anxiety and his calling became louder. When I resumed walking, the grouse lunged at my left boot – striking it in the side with his feet and chest.  I certainly didn’t expect that to happen.

That was my only experience with that particular grouse that season, but then, fully one year later, in the fall of 2006, he returned. It was deer season again and I had just discovered footprints in the snow of two presumed hunters that crossed onto the nature preserve’s land. While examining the prints, I was unexpectedly joined by that same manic grouse. He strutted out from the tree border where I saw him the year before. The brazen bird walked right in front of me and began vocalizing: “purt, purt, purt, purt…”. “You’re not quite normal, are you buddy?” I asked, not really expecting an answer, but at that point I really had no idea what this extraordinary woodland chicken was capable of. I continued following the footprints of the trespassers. Meanwhile the grouse seemed to be more interested in myfootprints and in my boots. However, at that point he didn’t seem keen to stray far from his border trees. He hung back as I proceeded down the trail. And then, without warning, he made a frantic dash over to me. This began a series of bold charges in which he repeatedly rammed his body into my boot. I wondered how far he would go. I offered him my arm, which he happily laid into. He grabbed it with his feet and while flapping his wings wildly, he pecked at it with his bill. Yes, I was being assaulted by a wild chicken! But this wasn’t just an ordinary wild chicken. This was some kind of super chicken! Following that encounter, I would refer to him as “Super Chicken”.

Why was this grouse behaving in this way? It couldn’t be a good survival strategy, to recklessly attack things that can easily make a dinner out of you! To top it off, the area he had chosen to ply his eccentricities was rife with predators of both human and animal variety. Needless to say, I didn’t expect him to last long. I recall that on December 5th, it was cold and snowing. I was driving the sanctuary’s ATV over the crest of the hill and then down the trail that runs along the tree border where Super Chicken keeps his vigil. Half way down the other side of the hill I saw a large bird rising from the road ahead of me, but it wasn’t Super Chicken. It had the long, broad wings of a raptor. It was an adult female Red-tailed Hawk and she had just finished a meal. In the place where she flew from I could see the scant remains of a kill. I stopped the vehicle and rushed over to the spot and was dismayed to find some blood and a few downy feathers in the snow. Did this represent the untimely end of Super Chicken?

In a somber mood, I made my way back to the vehicle. I started it up and resumed my patrol, but before I could get 50 feet down the trail, an improbable feathered missile launched itself from the hedgerow. It was Super Chicken! His goose hadn’t been cooked after all! He flew over the ATV and landed in the center of the trail directly in front of me. My relief at seeing him alive was instantly obliterated by the horror of nearly running him over.  Thankfully I was able to stop just short of where he landed. What was that crazy bird doing? I got out of the vehicle and walked over to talk to him. “Super Chicken, I’m glad you’re alive, but you’re unlikely to stay that way if you keep pulling stunts like this. What would happen if you did this to someone else? They would simply run you down.  Or maybe they’d shoot you and fricassee your hide.” It was clear that he could care less about what I was saying. He looked at me sideways and then began giving his familiar vocalization: “purt, purt, purt, purt…” He was again contemplating my boot and it seemed like he was ramping up to an attack. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day marked the start of a new ritual to be repeated many times through the balance of that season. It entailed me driving through Super Chicken’s territory; him landing in my path; me coaxing him far off the trail; me running back to the vehicle and trying to leave; him getting in front of the vehicle again; and the whole thing repeats. I can only imagine what some unseen hunter hiding in the brush would have made of that bizarre pantomime.

It was around this time that I began to realize that Super Chicken and I had similar missions. Both of us were acting as patrols. Our jobs were to keep interlopers off the property. The problem was, he was a defenseless grouse. For me this was problematic for several reasons, not least of which was the fact that I would have to spend more time and energy patrolling his area in an effort to see that he didn’t come to harm. I thought about measuring him for a Kevlar vest, or some kind of chicken-sized body armor. Although I was certain it would look great on him, it probably would not be very practical. Perhaps I had been going about it the wrong way and maybe I should have brought in a psychiatrist. One that specialized in delusional poultry may have been able to get him to act more like a mild mannered grouse and less like a minuteman.

The incomparable and somewhat incomprehensible Super Chicken was again on duty in 2007. I initially renewed my acquaintance with him during the spring turkey hunting season. He was at his usual post near the gate at the access road that went between the neighbor’s land and the nature preserve. I couldn’t help but notice he was not nearly as aggressive as he had been during the prior deer season. Indeed, my boots went unmolested as I crossed into his area. Perhaps since the grouse is more akin to a turkey than a deer, this particular hunting season cut a little too close to home for our hero.  After all, if he confronted the boot of an especially nearsighted turkey hunter, he might have been mistaken for a gobbler.

In the fall of that year, Super Chicken was back to being his old combative self and I was being regularly taken to task as I passed through his territory. There were a few occasions when I spotted hunters on the neighbor’s property and I had to believe that Super Chicken confronted them, right? It just wasn’t possible that I was the only person he ever scolded. Could he be a figment of my imagination? Some people see imaginary seven-foot tall purple rabbits (or so I hear). Perhaps my delusion manifests itself as a pint-sized forest chicken. Maybe it was me that needed the psychiatrist. No, Super Chicken was real and his corporeal form was verified by one of my shadowing students who, upon seeing the improbable bird blast out of the bushes and crash down in front of us, pointed and exclaimed, “What is that thing and what is it doing?” With that, I realized that I wasn’t crazy, but somebody nearby most probably was.

In the fall of 2008, I didn’t see Super Chicken for the first five days of the deer hunting season and I was beginning to think he was gone. Maybe he had fallen victim to a predator; possibly a Fisher or a Coyote, or maybe that Red-tailed Hawk finally nabbed him. She had been seen in Super Chicken’s territory a lot that season. But then, one morning I was driving by his outpost and scanning the tree line for hunters, when I saw him. He was low in the bushes, about ten feet over on our side of the border and standing completely still. In fact he looked more like a marble statue of himself rather than a living, breathing bird. I thought it was strange that he wasn’t coming over to check my credentials or do his usual inspection of my boots. Was there something wrong with Super Chicken (that is, other than his usual psychological problems)? I approached him with some trepidation. Perhaps he was sick and would need to be taken to a rehabilitator. As I got closer I began to hear an unusual high pitched whining sound but it wasn’t at all familiar.  However, as I looked for its source, Super Chicken surprised me again. This was yet another one of his vocalizations.

“Hmmmmmmmmmm!” he uttered while staring at me intently. His stance was odd, in that his legs were crossed. That’s not a posture we often see with birds. Still, he was perched bolt-upright with his neck out-stretched and eyes wide. It was clear that he was in full alarm mode. “What’s wrong, Super Chicken?” I asked, not expecting an answer. His whining intensified and he ratcheted it up to a higher pitch: “Hmmmmmmmmmm!” This seemed to be a real crisis, but what was the nature of the emergency? I could see no hunters around. There were no signs of any predators – nothing. I had seen a Coyote in the vicinity on the morning before, but the snow held no fresh tracks of anything larger than a rabbit. I decided to back off about 20 feet and just observe the little guy for a while in order to determine if he needed to see a wildlife rehabber, or chicken psychologist, or witch doctor, or someone! He continued with his alarm calls for another five minutes after which he seemed to just snap out of it. And then, as if nothing had happened, he nonchalantly trotted up to me and tried to pick a fight with my odious left boot.

So it seemed that Super Chicken was OK, the border area was secure and everything was fine. My next pass through the area was fully two hours later. That time as I passed the border gate, I could see a hunter in an orange cap crouching about 50 yards down the access road on the neighbor’s land. I stopped the vehicle ten yards beyond the old access road gate and walked back toward it to check for Super Chicken. I was walking slowly past the gate, keeping the hunter in view when you-know-who dramatically burst out from the trees. “Ah-ha….. I’ve captured you at last!” he seemed to say as he confronted my feet. Meanwhile the hunter stood up from his crouched position and craned his neck as if he was trying to get a better look at the guy having a powwow with a grouse. With Super Chicken trotting alongside me, I went back to where I left the vehicle. He walked in a slow circle around the vehicle. It was as if he was trying to satisfy himself that all six tires were properly inflated. After that I found myself trying to explain to him the inherent problem of a game-bird acting as a patrol during a hunting season. “It’s kind of like a cow being a meat inspector at a slaughterhouse.” I said, although now that I think about it, it’s really more like a chicken acting as the meat inspector.

For a while I seriously considered relocating Super Chicken to a safer place within the nature preserve. His safety became a great concern to me, but how would he react to new surroundings and perhaps to a host of unfamiliar threats. Once moved, would he even stay in the new place? The life expectancy of a Ruffed Grouse in the wild is only two years. Well, by 2008, Super Chicken was about twice that age. One thing was abundantly clear: That bird really wanted the territory he had been defending and regardless of my good intentions, did I really have the right to deprive him of it? The answer to that was no, and so the reckless bird would be permitted to live his crazy life just the way he wanted to.

A few days after Super Chicken surprised me with his emergency siren routine, I again feared that he had become someone’s dinner. One morning as I drove by his outpost I saw some red splashes in the snow and some tawny colored down feathers. I got out of the vehicle and examined the area, but found little in the way of additional clues. How did my feathered friend meet his demise? Was it the Red-tailed Hawk that hunts the field by day? Was it the Great Horned Owl that hunts it by night? Or was it a Coyote? Possibly it was a human hunter who took advantage of an easy target. Who or whatever was the culprit, I was convinced I would never set eyes on that odd creature again. And then as his impromptu eulogy was still unraveling in my head, the little bugger sprinted out from the tree border to confront me. “Ah-ha! Do you have a license for that vehicle yet?” he seemed to say to his nemesis, otherwise known as my boot. I was of course overjoyed to see my confrontational friend again and since there were no less than three hunters active on the neighbor’s side of the border, I decided to stay for a while and act as his personal body guard. He took my extended visit with him as an opportunity to give the vehicle an unusually thorough examination. He checked underneath the machine several times; he looked at all six of the tires; he examined the undercarriage, which he deemed to be very dirty. And then the tireless bird, having provided me with no shortage of surprises that day, went where no chicken has gone before. After two failed attempts he scrambled up on the hood of the ATV and proceeded to peer over the steering wheel and directly into my face! From there he made a short flight onto the vehicle’s roll bars where he found a suitable perch. Now he was able to quite literally look down on me and at the same time check to see if the roll bars were up to specifications. From there he jumped into the cargo bay and checked out the loose tools that were banging around back there. “…And this stuff should be properly stowed. A chicken could get hurt.”

In 2009, during the May turkey hunting season, Super Chicken remained very much on the job and eager to confront me whenever I came through. I didn’t think he would be in much jeopardy during that season, seeing as though few local hunters seemed to participate in it. However, one day I did see a turkey hunter standing on the neighbor’s land, close to our southern border. His turkey call lure was fairly convincing and as I approached I wasn’t sure if it was being produced by a real turkey or not. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a person making the sound. When I told the man that the land was off limits to hunting, he pretty much took it in stride and left without complaint.  I had to believe that Super Chicken had seen this guy come through, but I didn’t see any signs of a confrontation. Perhaps Super Chicken, not being a great fan of turkeys, doesn’t concern himself with turkey hunters. After all, turkeys would present him with serious competition for the choicest seeds and berries.

When October rolled around and the beginning of a new round of big game hunting seasons were upon us, I began regularly driving through Super Chicken’s territory again. Despite actively looking for him on several occasions, I wasn’t seeing him and quite frankly, I feared the worst. One day as I was closing in on his area, I saw a vulture flying low and directly over his territory. Although I had no reason to believe the buzzard had been scavenging on my longtime comrade, I couldn’t help but look upon it as an ill omen. And then a few days later, just as I entered his usual zone of influence, I heard Coyotes howling away from somewhere just beyond the hedgerow, and I was again struck with that “ill omen” feeling. What had become of Super Chicken?

On a crisp day in late October, I was very relieved when I finally encountered my little friend. “Super Chicken ….finally! Where have you been?” I asked. “purt, purt, purt, purt…”, called the great bird as he adroitly navigated through the remains of the stone border fence. He pecked at the ground as he approached me, systematically flipping over leaves and occasionally tossing one over his shoulder. He was feeding on the Bittersweet berries that dropped from the vines above us. I was struck at how reluctant he was to confront me in his old inimitable style. It was almost as if I hadn’t broken any of his innumerable laws, and I knew that was impossible. As he got closer to me I was able to get a good view of him. Indeed, he was starting to show signs of age. Some of his primary feathers were looking worn and even his body’s contour feathers were looking less than impeccable. Then it struck me: Super Chicken was telling me that he’s retiring. He was getting too old for this kind of work. After all, he has to be at least five years old now. He was no longer concerning himself with trespassing hunters and their confounded noise machines. He was going to leave it to the next generation to risk their lives defending territory. As for him, from that point forward he was just going to hang around and eat berries and seeds all day. As if to confirm his newly declared retired status he blatantly abstained from reciprocating when another grouse began drumming away in the nearby woods. “No one at the sanctuary has earned retirement more than you.” I said to my aged chicken friend, and I spoke the truth. I thought briefly about having a retirement party for him, but that notion was quickly dispelled when I remembered that he doesn’t really like anyone – particularly me! “I don’t know how I’m going to manage without you, Super Chicken.”, I said to him as earnestly as I could make it sound. Actually, I was relieved that during the upcoming hunting season I wouldn’t have to check on him every few hours to make sure that he wasn’t getting himself fricasseed. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around – perhaps while roosting on one of your favorite mossy logs.” I said while he was pecking off in another direction, and giving me a decreasing amount of attention. “purt, purt, purt, purt…”, said my former colleague and that was that.

About a week later, I was putting up some posted signs as a favor to the neighbor on our southern border, when I was startled by what looked to be an eagle swooping out of a nearby tree and dramatically crash-landing in the forest understory. OK, it didn’t look like an eagle, but it could’ve been a nearsighted owl or even a less than completely coordinated cormorant. It was of course, Super Chicken, literally swooping out of his very brief retirement. Super Chicken is good for about five surprises a year and I reckoned that was his latest one. As far as I knew, the place where we stood was not part of his traditional territory. Actually I thought the area I was working in was several hundred yards away from his outpost and yet that’s where he came to read me the riot act.  With his bill held high and slightly at an angle he examined the hefty amount of signage I had with me, and then proceeded to strut back and forth before me, all the while emitting disapproving clucks. I don’t think he appreciated the gaudy orange color of the posted signs. It was if he was telling me, “Birds can see in color, you know!” And there I had been actively defacing dozens of his trees without so much of a thought for the forest animals’ sense of ascetics. I was just thinking of the animals’ safety. Of course, to Super Chicken, this would constitute a double insult – since he was perfectly capable of looking out for the safety of the forest animals. Convinced I was doing what was best for everyone, including the reinvigorated grouse, I continued putting up my signs and Super Chicken followed me. He crashed through the underbrush behind me and made the most outraged chicken noises that one could imagine.

About half way through the regular deer season, a hunter wounded a deer on the neighbor’s land and proceeded to track the unfortunate animal right over to the border area where Super Chicken is active. There the hunter, who was obviously acquainted with my rounds, waited on the border for me to come by in order to ask for permission to track. When I came through I immediately saw the man waiting there and I also perceived the unmistakable figure of Super Chicken, who was standing in plain view and quite close to the man. I could just hear my semi-retired friend say “Well, I caught one! You can take him away now.” When I was getting the hunter’s name and information, the triumphant bird was strutting about and probably saying something like “Aren’t you going to put handcuffs on him?” I thought it best to be as amiable as possible to the hunter, hoping that a little good will might be returned in the direction of our vulnerable chicken friend, especially at some future time when I’m not around. Super Chicken alternated his gaze between the hunter and me as if trying to determine which one of us presented the greater threat. Fortunately, he settled on me and began contemplating a run at my boot. “He’s an interesting case this one”, I said, referring to the feisty chicken. Stretching the truth a bit I said: “He’s a rehabilitated Grouse and I’m afraid that he’s a bit too friendly for his own good.” I continued to pour it on “He’s getting pretty old. He’s probably about 5 or 6 and that’s around 98 in chicken years. Just look at those worn out feathers. And as you can see he’s really quite thin.” I of course, was attempting to make him sound like a wholly unworthy meal. At that point Super Chicken was likely beginning to take offense and it was clear to me that he thought I was not handling this situation with the appropriate seriousness.

Since the Hunter provided all his information and the deer was initially shot at a fair distance from our border, I agreed to lead the man into the preserve in an attempt to find the animal. I don’t believe that Super Chicken ever agreed with our tracking policy and he appeared to look upon my actions as nothing short of collusion with the enemy. After mounting a brief assault on the ATV, he disappeared back into the hedgerow – no doubt thoroughly disgusted.  The hunter and I searched the field in vein as freshly falling snow covered up all indications of the wounded deer’s path through the field. During my journey with “Melvin” (If Super Chicken had to catch a villainous hunter, wouldn’t you guess that his name would be Melvin), I divined his attitude toward bird hunting and learned that he had no interest in it. He raised chickens at home and according to him wild grouse were scrawny things. Luckily Super Chicken was out of earshot for that remark. Melvin told me that he’d had several previous run-ins with Super Chicken and so had his son. He said that the “crazy” bird had recently escorted his son for several hundred feet as he traveled through the nearby brush.

As it happens, that was to be my last encounter with Super Chicken – the day he got his man. Beyond that day I don’t know if he actually did retire or if he became prey. Since then I’ve gone through his territory more than a thousand times and on no occasion did a grouse or any other animal scold me or take issue with my boots. If Super Chicken left progeny behind, they did not inherit his heightened sense of territoriality. Like virtually all of their kind, they would seem to have become mild mannered grouse and were not “super” in any sense. In the seven years that have elapsed since our final meeting, I have heard grouse drumming many times and I’ve even seen a few of the secretive creatures. When they see me they launch themselves like feathered cannonballs in the opposite direction. What I wouldn’t give to have one launch itself at me once more.