If Smathers pauses along the dirt lane that leads to his back pasture, Gus emerges from the woods to fight off his perceived intruder. For more than a year, Smathers has been tangling with Gus, who has yet to lose and always manages to send Smathers on his way.
Smathers agreed to demonstrate his backyard phenomenon for a couple friends and a curious reporter last month.
“Let’s crank up the grouse call,” Smathers said, heading down the lane to the hot spot for Gus activity. He slowly revved the idle on his ATV until it made a brisk thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. Smathers scanned the hillside for signs of movement as he raised and lowered the idle.
Grouse usually start their thumping slower and get faster. During mating season, grouse stand in the same spot each day, either on a rock or log, and drum their wings to attract females, explained Steve Henson, a friend of Smathers and one of Gus’ biggest fans.
“It hasn’t failed me yet,” he said. “Come on, Gus.”
A few minutes later, Smathers pointed his finger into a thicket of low hanging hemlock branches. Sure enough, there was Gus.
Gus strutted down the bank, cautious but determined, slowly edging out of the tree cover before swaggering into the lane to square off with Smathers and the ATV.
Smathers killed the ATV engine and took of his cloth ball cap for phase two of the challenge. Smathers held the brim and flipped the cap back and forth. The hat turned inside out, then right side out with each flip of the cap, making a thumping sound. Gus strutted back in forth in front of the cap, ruffling his tail feathers and occasionally flapping up in the air and striking at the cap.
Smathers’ first encounter with Gus was almost two years ago. He was towing a fertilizer spreader with his ATV when a grouse flew across the pasture. Smathers asked Henson, an avid grouse hunter, to come take a look.
When Henson told Smathers the grouse was a male and had staked out Smathers’ property as his territory and was there to stay (at least for the season), Smathers decided to name him Gus. He continued to catch glimpses of Gus, but several months passed before he realized the reason for the attraction.
Gus’ claim to fame took off when Henson got a call from a television producer with the University of North Carolina TV’s Carolina Outdoor Journal who wanted video footage of a grouse for a special program called Explore North Carolina.
“I said, ‘Well, it just so happens I know of a grouse you might be able to get close to,’” Henson recounted.
While rare, a feisty grouse such as Gus is not totally unheard of. There have been other cases of grouse roused into a fight by an ATV idle, and in one case, a chainsaw idle. Henson thought it would be worth a try. It worked like a charm, and Gus became a TV star.
A biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society made a trip all the way from Pennsylvania to pay Gus a visit.
A grouse’s average life span is 3 to 4 years. Gus is already 2, but Smathers is lucky to have had Gus around this long given Gus’ propensity for picking fights with little thought to his opponents’ size or stature.
“He’s taken a dive at the horses. He’s taken a dive at the dogs,” Smathers said. “We’ve been surprised he made it this long.”
Henson said Gus is small for a male grouse, probably because he burns so many calories chasing things.
The grouse’s main predators are owls and hawks, Henson said. They spend most of their time on the ground and like low scrubby forest, where they are protected from overhead predators, rather than large mature park-like forest with a tall tree canopy and little undergrowth.
Henson said grouse are losing their habitat as logging declines. The low, brushy habitat grouse prefer grows in the wake of logging, but the decline of logging means that type of habitat is not being created, Henson said. Henson is a lobbyist and advocate for the timber industry as the director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council.