A grouse named Goofus

Did that really happen?

“Here, Goofus. Hey, Goofus, come on. Let’s go, Goofus.”

The man doing the calling was Jack Carlson. After meeting Jack at his cabin in the Sand Country of central Wisconsin—not far, as the crow flies, from a certain spring pond where I’ve done some business with brookies over the years—I climbed on the back of Jack’s ATV. We skirted a marshy pond, then rumbled part way up a slope stippled with pines and oaks. There, Jack cut the engine.

“We call this the ‘Goofus Trail,’” he explained. “He’s liable to show up anywhere on the property—we have 42 acres here—but this is where we can always count on seeing him.”

With that, Jack started calling, mixing it up with a sort of tongue-fluttering purr punctuated at the end with a rising bloop! A minute passed, then another, then another. We looked this way and that—nothing. Jack was perplexed.

“When he hears the sound of the engine he usually comes right away,” he said. “I hired a couple guys just the other day to clear some trees, and I told them that when they started their chainsaws Goofus would probably show up to investigate. They told me that when they fired up their saws he came in right on cue.”

Now, though, he was making himself scarce. Then I glanced down the trail in the direction we’d just come from and there he was not ten yards away, striding purposefully towards us.
Goofus the grouse.

That’s right. Goofus is a ruffed grouse—in the minds of most sportsmen, the wariest and wildest of all gamebirds, a bird that under normal circumstances is almost impossible to get close to. As a longtime grouse hunter myself, I can tell you that there are times when these uber-elusive birds have left me feeling so helpless, and driven me into such a state of despair, that I’ve wanted to sink to my knees, cradle my face in my hands, and weep.

But rules, even in nature, are made to be broken, and every so often a grouse steps out of character, bonds to humans, and generally behaves in a very un-grouselike fashion. According to Scott Walter, a Wisconsin-based biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, these “tame” grouse are typically males.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Goofus, who sauntered up to Jack Carlson one summer day when Jack was frogging around on his ATV and has been his buddy—make that his best buddy—ever since. “I love that little guy,” he says. “I have more pictures of him than I do of my family.” A mutual friend had shown me video on his phone of the Jack and Goofus show, and when I got up off the floor I said “I gotta see this for myself!”

And now I was. Goofus circled the ATV several times, occasionally emitting a soft, gurgling cluck. Jack reached into a storage compartment and pulled out a slender pine bough with a tuft of needles at its very end.

“I call this my ‘tickle stick,’” he said. “Watch this.”

Jack brushed Goofus’s head, back, and even his chest with the tickle stick, and Goofus, for his part, was clearly in heaven.

“He loves this,” Jack laughed.

“I’ve never fed him,” he added, “and he won’t let me touch him with my hands. But he’s definitely attracted to people. I hunt deer on the property with some friends and he’s always showing up, walking around and generally making a nuisance of himself. Sometimes he’ll hop right on top of our blinds! Talk about distracting….”

Wanting a photo of Goofus and Jack together, I eased off the machine and walked a few yards up the trail. But instead of hopping onto the ATV (which Jack says he does routinely), Goofus followed me! I dropped to the ground and eventually lay on my stomach, snapping photos the whole time. At one point while Goofus was within a couple feet of me I brushed an ant off my arm. He immediately bristled up, rushed me like a tiny bull, and pecked the back of my hand!

If I have any claim to fame, it’s that I’m one of the very few people in this world who’s actually been pecked by a ruffed grouse.

When it came time to leave, Jack said, “He’ll run after us until we get going too fast for him. He hardly ever flies; in fact, for a long time we weren’t sure he could fly. Then one day he suddenly raised his crest, clucked a couple of times, and took off. A few seconds later I saw my wife, Jan, walking up the trail. I didn’t know she was coming, but Goofus obviously did.”

Sure enough, Goofus kept pace with us for a while, then dropped back and faded from sight. But not from memory, although I occasionally find myself thinking back and wondering, “Did that really happen?”