“The Smaller The Creature, The Bolder Its Spirit.”
I found myself in a precarious situation, trying to keep the bike between me and the angry beast. No matter what I tried it just kept charging, desperately trying to get around the tires so it would have a clear path straight for me. I am still unsure what I did to invoke such a blind rage, but that didn’t matter because at that particular moment I was just hoping to escape unharmed…
The ride started out like any other; gearing up and pedalling out of the West Bragg Creek parking lot. Our chosen loop would take us up Ranger Summit before plunging down Strange Brew en-route back to the cars. We should have heeded the ominous warning provided by a rapidly descending woman who encountered the creature a couple of kilometres up the trail from our location. Instead we poked fun and cracked jokes, but as they say karma can be a real b****! We continued climbing not giving it a second thought until we rounded a bend and there he was, sitting directly in the middle of the trail.
I’ve always considered myself a man; the type that likes sports, red meat, the outdoors, and cold beer, but this wildlife encounter had me reevaluating my manliness in its entirety. I am sad to report the animal we encountered was not a bear, a cougar, a wolf, or any of the other terrifying forest dwellers. Nor was it one of the mythical creatures that are said to inhabit the remote wilderness, characters such as Big Foot, Chupacabra, Wendigo, or Jackalope. No, this particular beast was just your regular old, run-of-the-mill Spruce Grouse. You know those chickens of the forest that are roughly the size and shape of a football and clock in at a whopping half a kilogram. This bundle of feathers and fury terrorized five, yes five, grown men, wearing gloves and helmets, while riding mountain bikes.
As the leader of our group cautiously approached the grouse on his bike we all anticipated it would scurry into the brush or fly into a nearby tree, as dictated by typical grouse behavior. Instead this fellow stood his ground and refused to budge. Gentle coaxing and the threat of a tire-tread tattoo did nothing to lodge him from his perch. Things were cordial until our second rider decided to break all wildlife-encounter etiquette by sprinting past the bird. That’s when all hell broke loose! Thinking he was safely past the grouse he slowed down only to discover said grouse was flapping wildly between his legs, attempting to peck his favourite appendage. After sharing a high-pitched scream with everyone and everything in a 10-kilometre radius and abandoning his bike, the grouse maintained full control of the trail while our buddy was several feet into the adjacent forest. After watching this unfold and knowing I still had to attempt to pass this demon-bird my confidence was noticeably shaken. One at a time the next two riders tempted fate while crossing paths with the devil reincarnate. Each time they got close the grouse lunged break-first at their tires, desperately trying to peck anything from the ankles down.
With the other four riders safely past, the grouse turned his sights on me. The humour I had experienced as a bystander suddenly morphed into primal fear. The thought of just turning around crossed my mind, but my already fragile ego likely couldn’t withstand the ribbing I was sure to receive. I had no choice but to face nature’s rage head-on. In what can only be described as a guttural growl (I didn’t know birds could make such sounds), the full wrath of the brute was thrust upon me. He was deceivingly fast and his diminutive frame was astonishingly nimble. Forsaking my plan of using my bike as a shield I rushed past him, praying my Achilles wouldn’t become his next meal.
Having reached the other side unscathed we were able to sheepishly regroup and reflect on what had just transpired. We (wrongly) assumed that the grouse had a nest nearby and was viciously protecting it at all costs. None of us were gored by his tiny beak and the only thing damaged was our pride. The rest of the ride was uneventful, but most adventures pale in comparison. We returned home slightly embarrassed by our reactions while in the face of danger. We relayed the story to family members and friends, many of whom responded with the same dumbfounded look on their faces as you have right now. Most asked one of the following questions, “How could anyone be scared of a grouse?” “I thought you guys were men?” “What if it had been a bear?” Our response was always the same, “You weren’t there! You’ve never had to stare down the beak of danger like that!” I’m unsure if we have to forfeit our man-cards because of this incident, but it certainly didn’t help our reputations.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness over the years and have never seen or even heard about a Spruce Grouse acting like that, but it turns out this grouse was not an anomaly. Over the next few weeks we continued to read reports about other grouse attacking outdoor recreationists. Stories from reputable sources including CBC, the Calgary Sun, the Rocky Mountain Outlook, and even the Alpine Club of Canada all published articles depicting the aggressive nature of different species of grouse. In one instance it got so bad that officials had to close the Montane Traverse trail in Canmore due to the unruly demeanour of a Blue Grouse (also known as a Dusky Grouse). Apparently spring is grouse mating season and the hostile actions are the result of the males being quite amorous in their search for females. Their testosterone levels are extremely high when compared with the rest of the year. With the abnormally warm and dry spring we experienced in southern Alberta in 2016 there were more people out on the trails earlier than years past. All that extra traffic was likely the main cause of the avian encounters.
Looking back we could have easily put a stop to his ridiculous antics, but none of us had any intention of hurting him when he hadn’t really done anything wrong. We aren’t out there to injure (or worse) another living thing just because he was being a bit of an a******. To be completely honest it seems a bit counter-intuitive for evolution to have something that small brutally attack anything that moves. I highly doubt a Black Bear would put up with such reckless behaviour if it had been the one that encountered Gary (yes apparently he has a name) that fateful day.
I’ve since been back to the area dozens of times, but have yet to run into Gary again (unless that’s him in the photo above). It’s hard to say what my reaction would be if a second encounter presented itself, but I like to think I would handle it differently. Hopefully Gary was able to find an attractive female grouse; one willing to put up with his absurd antics and he was able to release some tension. Maybe the two of them could settle down and start a little grouse family of their own, somewhere off in the forest away from pesky hikers and cyclists. I would hate to see Gary’s reaction towards the first teenage grouse that comes knocking on the nest to take his daughter out on her first date. Poor guy would never see it coming!
In the end our entire group was actually put on trial in Man Card Court by a local radio station here in Calgary; CJAY92. To listen to the entire trial and hear the verdict please visit this website and scroll to the bottom.