Dusky Grouse Attack Leaves Wildlife Photographer Don Jones With Bloody Lip

By Don Jones. As told to Steven Hill. A week ago two fellow photographers and I traveled to a mountaintop in the Flathead Valley of west-central Montana--for the last 20 years my favorite place to photograph Dusky Grouse. The scenery is beautiful, bird numbers are good and I can usually find a male grouse or two with a chip on his shoulder. But never have I encountered a Dusky with quite as much attitude as the bird I nicknamed Brutus. Why Brutus was so aggressive is a mystery to me. The nearest ranch is miles away and the access road to the trailhead only recently opened, so it seems unlikely the bird was acclimated to people. May marks the beginning of the Dusky breeding season, so perhaps he simply felt the need to defend his territory--from not only other male Grouse, but everybody At left: Spring trips to the mountain usually find the dusky grouse in full courtship display, hoping to lure that special female into his breeding range.Don Jones
But on this trip my friends and I were welcomed not by a beautiful spread of tail feathers, but by a plucky bird with a rather fierce objection to intruders.Don Jones
Each time we shook off our attacker he quickly struck again. His jabs didn't hurt, but he seemed intent on causing the most damage possible: My companion's blue jeans had a hole in one knee, and the combative grouse drilled away at this apparent weak spot like a boxer who'd found an opening.Don Jones
We tried retreating, but "Brutus" (as we'd come to call the pugnacious little brute by now) chased hot on our heels.Don Jones
Realizing this could be an interesting photo opportunity, the three of us retreated to a better location about 30 yards away. Brutus followed.Don Jones
The chance to work a "wild" Dusky Grouse with a 24mm lens seemed like a real treat, because it allowed me to include the bird's habitat in the photo--not an easy thing to do when shooting from afar with longer lenses.Don Jones
I quickly found that getting those wide shots of Brutus wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. As I pressed closer to fill the frame, Brutus got a bit irritated and unleashed a throaty growl. I'd heard similar threatening vocalizations from male Sage Grouse preparing to fight each other, but never before had I heard this sound from a Dusky Grouse.Don Jones
I decided to see if I could get Brutus to come to me. Remembering his obsession with my buddy's knee, I propped my foot on a log. Sure enough, Brutus climbed right up my leg.Don Jones
Brutus seemed to like the attention, strutting across the log like a supermodel on a catwalk. We all took full advantage, clicking off shots of this suddenly very accommodating grouse.Don Jones
He even posed for close-ups!Don Jones
Brutus became so relaxed that he acted more like a domestic parrot than a wild grouse.Don Jones
In fact, the more comfortable Brutus got, the more uncomfortable we got. Having a wild bird with a sharp beak perched only inches from our eyes and tender ear lobes seemed like a little too much togetherness. Our feeling of unease was warranted, and we were about to find out why.Don Jones
Wham! In a flash, Brutus went on the attack, lunging at Ralph with beak and claws flailing. He opened a nasty gash in Ralph's face.Don Jones
Having drawn first blood, the grouse seemed satisfied that his message had been delivered.Don Jones
Now I knew what Brutus was capable of, but still I was reluctant to walk away from what was obviously a unique opportunity. I thought, "This grouse could get hit by a truck or killed by a hawk tomorrow. Get this on film while you can." I got down low against a log so I could photograph Brutus as he charged toward the camera.
At the last moment I'd back off and shoot him posing and growling.
He often sat atop this fallen tree and growled, mouth open wide.
At times Brutus almost seemed interested in seeing the results of our work--but it was most likely the reflection of light off the camera's display screen that caught his eye.
Getting close with a wide-angle lens allowed me to picture the bird more fully in his environment, but there were consequences. As I sat back to review my images and think of a new angle …
Wham! It was my turn to feel the wrath of Brutus. Of all the critters I have photographed across North America, I never dreamed a grouse would be the first to draw blood.
Having proven his point and successfully defended his territory, Brutus decided we were no real threat. With a smirk that seemed to say, "Had enough, tough guy?" he strutted off.Don Jones
But, adding insult to injury, he couldn't resist one last salute as he walked away.Don Jones