Something either went much wrong or much right here at Friendship Back River for the year-end holidays, and we looked out one morning to see a pa'tridge perched in a poplar tree. It was, at the time, snowing, but it was the first fluff of the winter and a desultory effort that quit shortly and made just enough for car tracks on the porch. The day was not the first day of Christmas. Perhaps our pa'tridge was confused, because ordinarily that is not enough snow to make one perch in any kind of tree, but mostly in a spruce, so you don't usually stand off at a distance and see him. Besides, we don't have pa'tridges in Maine -- only grouse which, in our kind of confusion, we have always called pa'tridges. This was a ruffed grouse, which for years our Associated Press stories always spelled "ruffled." It was, however, a poplar of the Maine variety , esteemed for high-grade printing papers, very poor for a firewood, and almost never a perch for a pa'tridges.
Well, it burns without smoke. In the old Abnakis legends, the Great Spirit gave Chief Arumbee a valuable gift in the Form of a forest tree for each of his daughters to wed in turn. Arumbee was a good provider and the Great Spirit seemed to be a good customer. The birch, for instance, was a wood that burned "under water." Meaning that it can be kindled when cut green even in a rainstorm , which could save a brave's life out on the trail in adversity. We had a neighbor years ago who proved this. He cut green birch (it was white birch but he cut it green) sled lengths and piled it beside the house in the dooryard. Never dried and no shed. His wife would carry a length into the kitchen and shove one end into the side door of the firebox, resting the far end on a chair. As the stick burned, she would move the chair up. But the green birch burned all nights, as the Great Spirit bargained as his dowry for Wawmawmakshee daughter No. 3. It was something to see this woman come out of the pantry with a pie in each hand and vault over the stick of birch to get at the oven.
For bride No. 6, Kentewlooksum, the Great Spirit gave a wood that would burn without smoke. Poplar. Again, this was a boon, because a brave out on the trail in the lands of his enemies could light a fire to keep warm and to toast his corncakes, and there would be no smudge coming up to tell anybody he was around. However, popular, while it may be conflagrated in secret, is mighty poor fuel, and even green birch does better under a pan.
Of our two pa'tridges, the ruffed grouse is the one we see down in our southern counties. The spruce grouse, known as the "fool hen" likes the denser forests of northern Maine and seldom appears close to habitation, even woods camps. But the fool hen is the chummy one, and the species most likely to be seen in a tree. A few years ago our Fish & Game department put a perpetual closed season on the spruce grouse, and I would admire to see them do the same soon with the ruffed. But the ruffed grouse is wary, and as a target for hunters can be elusive. It flies erractically when flushed, and people who have never heard a flushed ruffed grouse can't begin to imagine the explosion of the take-off. Wings thump the bird's sides like claps of thunder and as the bird usually freezes and sits motionless until you are almost upon it, this takes place more or less between your feet. The spruce grouse, quite otherwise, seems inafraid of anything, and if surprised will fly up on a limb and sit there looking at you
In any kind of severe snowstorm, our ruffed grouse will perch in a spruce a time, but later will drop to the ground and let the snow cover over. After the storm he/she pushes up through and resumes.