But ask now the beasts,
And they shall teach thee,
And the fouls of the air,
And they shall teach thee;
Or speak to the earth
And it shall teach thee
And the fishes of the sea
shall declare unto thee.Job 12:7-8, KJV
Most hikers who have spent any time at all on the western slopes of the mountains will have had a terrifying encounter with a ruffed grouse. These humble birds are perfectly camouflaged, so when they burst forth out of the underbrush in a flurry of wings, it is as if the world has exploded beneath your feet and suddenly is in flight around your head. I have had numerous such confrontations, and I am always surprised by the adrenaline rush it produces, though it does not take long to figure out that the threat is a brownish bird, about the size of a small chicken, and utterly harmless. That is what I thought anyway.
I was surprised then, when on a hike in the Olympics, I came upon such a bird that seemed to have no interest whatsoever in scaring me away. I was on a popular trail, making my way through one of those glorious Olympic meadows beneath big leaf maple, the Quinault River nearby, sword ferns and vanilla leaf lining my path. I was enjoying a level stretch, not particularly difficult, and was delighted when I found I had a companion with me on the trail. This grouse was walking behind me, keeping pace with me quite effectively, instead of rushing into the air to scare me. At first I thought it must be some kind of coincidence. We were simply both headed in the same direction. But I found that when I slowed my pace, the grouse slowed down as well, and when I picked things up, so did the grouse. Most telling of all, when I stopped to rest, the grouse did as well, as if waiting for me to get going again. We were hiking together. There was no question about it.
This went on for some time. I slowed my pace so as not to rush things. It is not everyday that one finds such a congenial hiking partner, not bothering me with unnecessary conversation, and always happy to stop and rest when I did.
Finally I decided it was time to sit down and get to know this creature that was accompanying me on my journey. I found a comfortable spot by the side of the trail and held out one hand to it. To this day, I do not know what I expected from such a gesture. A loving kiss on the palm? A shaking of “hands?”
My feathered companion did neither of those things but instead bit me firmly on my outstretched finger with its sharp little beak, and then, as if the bite was insufficient to get my attention, flew squarely into my face, knocking me over onto my back, where I lay on the trail dazed.
Lying on one’s back on a trail is always a good time for reflection. What had I expected? This was a wild bird, however friendly it may have initially presented itself. I stood up and resumed hiking, glancing back at the bird, which continued following me, despite our recent conflict over the terms of our relationship. When I increased my pace, it even added a flap of its wings so that it could keep up with me. I was starting to feel a bit spooked by this, like I was being stocked. Eventually the bird lost interest and disappeared into the dense understory. I imagined it waiting in ambush for another hiker, sharp beak ready to bite.
In retrospect I have thought about the strange experience and reasoned that on that popular trail hikers before me had accustomed the grouse to receiving handouts. When I failed to produce a raisin or a peanut, the obvious choice was to bite my finger, which I graciously made available.
It was not the first time I have had an encounter like this with a wild creature, and I hope it will not be the last. They are rare, but when you spend enough time alone on a mountain trail, the world can surprise you at times. For a moment you are between two worlds: this daily world we live in everyday and a wild one, where a bird becomes a companion on the trail.