Pa'tridge crossing

ON the recently completed Grandfathers' Retreat -- the 23rd annual in the current series -- Bill and I were riding toward our traditional Wednesday picnic at the outlet of Baker Lake, and we came upon a fool hen which taught us a pleasant lesson. This is not unusual, as the fool hen is frequent in those parts. The fool hen is a spruce grouse anywhere else, but in Maine we always call a grouse a partridge -- except we say pa'tridge. The other of our two grouses is the ruffed grouse, which thrives closer to humans and is better known downstate. The spruce grouse is an upstate wilderness bird of curious and peculiar habits and because of its predilection for hanging around until any poor marksman can connect, it has been put on a permanent ``closed'' season. The ruffed grouse remains a game bird.

So Bill and I tooled around a bend in the International Paper Company logging road and this fool hen was standing at the side, about a foot from the shoulder grass. She had her head thrust skyward and was rigid in close attention to everything. I stopped our pickup truck and set the hand brakes.

We were about 50 feet from her. She stood that way for many minutes. Then she slowly, deliberately, delicately, lifted one foot and held it aloft while she decided what to do with it. Bill and I watched, and then slowly, deliberately, delicately, she thrust the raised foot forward and placed it carefully on the ground. In this manner she crossed the road ahead of us and it took her a good half hour. We had no idea if she was aware of us, but I would guess this is the way any mommie fool hen crosses any road whether anybody is around or not. She was scouting the safety of the situation, and she had now decided that all was well.

Now, on the fringe of the shoulder grass on the other side, she lowered her head and clucked. Bill and I weren't close enough to hear the cluck, but we saw her tail feathers twitch and knew what caused that. Her cluck brought a chick into sight, and now she urged it to come across. It came; it scooted in complete contrast to the stately and tedious passing of the mother and whipped into the grass beyond her. Then four more chicks came out, one at a time, and each was clucked. The third one got about halfway across and took to flight -- Bill and I hadn't supposed the tykes were big enough to fly yet.

And as they came out and crossed, Mother kept count, because after five she followed them into the grass and the show was over. Bill and I sat waiting for a sixth. There was none. We were glad to know that a fool hen can count.

It was the next day, when we were bound for our annual Thursday picnic at Loon Lake outlet, that we saw the very same enactment by quite another family in quite another section of our preserve. There was the hen, head up and alert, silent and rigid, and we stopped as before. But this time there were six chicks and Bill and I sat after the performance to await the seventh. There was none. But we believe two samples are sufficient evidence for us to conclude, academically, that a fool hen is not so stupid but she knows how to get her chicks across the road.

Something may occur to me later, but for now this is the only nugget of important knowledge to derive from our comprehensive seminars and symposia of this year's retreat. Our fauna observations include some moose, a deer, a red-tailed hawk, two bears, a snowshoe rabbit, and 53 boy scouts in canoes. We heard a loon at night and saw three in the daytime. One red squirrel invaded our camp and we chased him out with a broom, but he came right back in. The angling proved reluctant, although we gave the trout and salmon equal opportunity, so we forwent a fish course at our frugal banquets. But on Tuesday evening we had the steaks with onions and mushrooms, and I made French fries. And strawberry shortcakes. I enumerate so folks won't think Bill and I spend all of our retreat looking at fool hens. Our preliminary suggestion is that statistics would be less grim if humans would cross streets with the caution of the fool hens up in the North Maine Woods.

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