A ruffed grouse might stay in hiding as long as possible before startling a nearby hunter with its escape. Bill Marchel/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

Slipping silently along through a thick patch of firs, I was startled by the sudden eruption of a grouse bursting from cover nearly underfoot. The seconds it took to recover my composure afforded the bird time to put more space, and several trees between us, and my hasty shot did little more than knock off some bark.

My mother used to say, “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s especially true in nature. Behavior that may seem unusual to us usually (though not always) has a purpose, and it’s most often related to survival.

Holding tight until I was almost on top of it was that bird’s first line of defense – not burning valuable energy or exposing itself to danger until it was necessary. Bursting from cover served its intended purpose of startling a potential predator, and improving the odds of escape. Dodging behind a tree was no mere accident or coincidence, either. It provides a means for the grouse to avoid one of its principle natural predators, the goshawk. Those tactics also give it an edge against we two-legged predators.

Further along, my eye caught a bit of white on the forest floor. Thinking at first it was just a patch of snow I continued on, and was nearly past it when I paused long enough to notice a beady, black eye staring back, before the snowshoe hare broke cover and fled. Had winter’s snow not been late in coming, I might have missed it. Had I continued at a steady pace it might well have held tight and let me pass – another survival trick. My stopping perhaps acted as a warning that the jig was up and the bunny better split the scene.

Its escape route is random at first, but as any houndsman will tell you, the hares eventually, if pursued, take an arcing path that brings them back to or near where they were jumped. That may not seem like a practical tactic. However, if the hare continues moving away from the first encounter, it will eventually find itself in unfamiliar territory. Closer to home it is more familiar with the lay of the land, the best cover and the best escape routes. It works better against bobcats, lynx and coyotes than hunters and hounds.

Just a few weeks earlier I was sneaking through that same patch of woods donned in orange vest and cap and carrying a rifle when I heard the unmistakable sound of a deer blowing. Whether by scent or sound, it was aware of my presence. However, not content with merely slipping or even bounding away, it was compelled to make every other creature within hearing distance aware of my presence. More likely than not it was an older doe. A buck might selfishly slink off but a doe has maternal obligations to its current and possibly previous generations of offspring.

The white-tailed deer has a brownish-gray coat that allows it to blend remarkably well into its surroundings. It also has acute senses of hearing and smell, allowing it to detect danger from some distance away. Why then when alarmed, does it wave its namesake flag during a hasty departure?

Biologists don’t know for sure, but surmise that the white-tail salute likely serves as a signal to other deer in the dense cover deer often inhabit. Other deer, especially young ones, may not have detected the danger and when alerted to its presence, may not know which way to flee. The flag-waving deer is signaling, “Dirigo – follow me.”

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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