Letter from Aroostook: Chasing an elusive bird

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We’ve had our first frosts, and although they’ve been light there is an urgency across the land.

Throughout each day, there is the rumble of potato harvesters clearing the fields and the whine of chain saws prepping winter wood. Chevrons of geese wing southward as the days shorten, and poplars and birches are shedding their golden leaves. Things in The County are clearly slowing down, just in time for the start of bird hunting season. 

Jan GriecoAroostook County is the largest in Maine, and as in other parts of the state, COVID-19 has put a damper on some events, but with 3.5 million forested acres, hunting hasn’t slowed at all. 

Those wooded acres are home to deer, bear, and moose, as well as coyotes, bobcats, snowshoe rabbits, partridge, and geese. It’s a hunter’s dream and is open to everyone unless otherwise posted.  

There are some things people should keep in mind when they head out into the woods. The woods and all their roads are privately owned, used mostly by the timber companies that sustainably harvest the trees that grow there. Private vehicles are required to yield the right-of-way to the timber trucks, and it is in a driver’s best interest to do so. The trucks are large and heavily loaded and kick up dust clouds that often make it difficult to see. In fact, if you plan on roaming those roads, it is wise to have a MURS radio to call out mile markers and let truckers know where you are. 

I used to hunt when I was young. In fact, I’m the only one in our family who has gotten a deer, years ago, and I cried. I decided then that deer hunting wasn’t for me. But hubby goes out into the Big Woods almost every day that weather allows. He likes the time alone, and the partridge and snowshoe rabbits make good meals on a cold winter night. Right now it’s partridge season, and I’ve almost become a hunting widow. But the time he spends makes for some good eating. 

Bird dog and grouse
A bird dog and its quarry of grouse in Aroostook County. (Courtesy John Crane)

Partridge as they are known in Maine and most of New England, are really ruffed grouse, and they can be tough birds to get without a good bird dog. Years ago, we hunted with German short-haired pointers, and while we still have two of those, they are rescues and house pets rather than hunting companions. So hubby makes his way out into the woods alone, searching for these elusive birds. 

Finding and harvesting them is complicated by the fact that they do look similar to spruce grouse, for which there is no open hunting season because of the low population throughout the state. That makes it critical to know the difference between the two birds before taking a shot. But there are some easy identifiers if you take the time to look carefully. 

First, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife advises, ruffed grouse tends to perk its head like a chicken, and either flushes – flying off quickly – or lowers its head and runs for cover. We always look for a conspicuous black band on the tail, small feathers on its head, and black feathers on the sides of its neck. They are relatively easy to spot but much harder to shoot.

But if you’re looking for a way to spend a great day out in the woods, head up to The County. There are numerous lodges that cater to hunters, and millions of acres to roam in search of the bird. Either way, it’s an experience that is hard to beat.

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.

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