Sunday, June 4, 2006
Steamboat Springs It isn't enough that we have callow mountain lions trying to munch on terriers and boorish bears ripping the interiors out of pickups in Routt County. Now we have a substantiated report of a blue grouse and a wild turkey working as a team in an apparent attempt to steal mountain bikes from Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athletes.
Many of you will think I have made this account up out of desperation on a Sunday evening. However, if you attended one of the many graduation parties held in our town on Friday night, you know that this tale of belligerent birds was the hottest topic of conversation.
The story unfolded as Winter Sports Cub cross-country skiing coach Brian Tate led a group of skiers on a strenuous mountain bike ride onto the upper reaches of Emerald Mountain last week. The athletes already have begun training for the ski season still five months in the future.
As the group entered a particularly steep stretch of trail known as the "Lane of Pain," two athletes, Melissa Krause, 16, and Molly Newman, 14, fell off the back of the peloton.
That's when the bird gang moved in.
"We were really tired, and this grouse came out of the bushes into the middle of the trail," Krause said. "At first, I thought it was a duck. We got off our bikes and stopped because it was right in the middle of a trail."
As the old saying goes, "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a grouse!"
Now, grouse are generally harmless creatures, which are especially vulnerable to hunters because they allow humans to approach to such a close distance. But the grouse misses Krause and Newman encountered was on the warpath.
"It was trying to peck my legs, it was trying to bite us," Krause said. She pointed to a series of nasty looking scratches left on the back of her calves by the demon bird.
The girls admitted they were more than a little unnerved by the aggressive grouse. They retreated, screaming, until it backed off. Safe for the moment, the girls still had a problem. They were separated from their group, high above the old rock quarry on Emerald Mountain, and a little unsure of exactly where they were. Newman took the precaution of stuffing a couple of handfuls of rocks into the pouch on the back of her cycling jersey. They were bushwhacking through the scrub oak when they were confronted by an even bigger problem -- it was a large wild turkey -- (Krause held her arm out at a height of about 4 feet to indicate the size of the bird. She recalled that it had dramatic wattles under its chin and its tail feathers were flared in full display.
"It was really angry, and it was coming at us at full charge," Newman said. She fired a few rocks in the direction of the onrushing bird, but it was undeterred. Krause shoved her bike in the direction of the Tom turkey, and the girls went into full retreat -- and by this time, they were crying.
You might cry too if you set out on an innocent bike ride up Emerald Mountain and wound up having to defend yourself from two separate attacks by man-eating birds.
I was skeptical at first about the girls' story because I've never seen a wild turkey in Routt County. But a Web page maintained by Colorado State University confirms that the birds can be found in neighboring counties. Eagle and Garfield counties are north of the turkeys' historic range, but the large birds were introduced into that area, and if they haven't flourished, their numbers have at least grown. So, it's plausible that a turkey has migrated north to Emerald Mountain from just the other side of the Flat Tops in Garfield County.
I was also able to find a credible account of grouse menacing humans.
Ted Bailey, a retired wildlife biologist who worked at Alaska's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, has experienced a series of similar encounters with spruce grouse that were defending their territories.
He and his wife were hiking one day when a spruce grouse confronted her and began flaring its wings against her pants and pecking at the back of her legs. Bailey theorized that the bird became agitated by the red jacket she was wearing. When he put the jacket on, the grouse shifted its unwanted attentions to him (Krause was wearing a bright lime green cycling jersey when she was attacked on Emerald Mountain). Other times, grouse pecked at Bailey's legs even though he was wearing drab clothes.
He says grouse are hard-wired to respond this way to the stimulus of an interloper in their personal space.
I can't resist having a little fun with all of the recent encounters among the wild creatures of Routt County and its human residents. In all seriousness, however, it's always best for wildlife when people avoid encroaching on their comfort zones.
Krause and Newman innocently stumbled into the manic bird zone on Emerald Mountain, and after a two-hour detour, they and their bikes made it safely back to the parking lot at Howelsen Hill. It's a safe bet they won't return to the Lane of Pain for at least a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, the best we can all hope for is that a young mountain lion will devour the grouse from heck.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.