The Symbol of the Grouse: Where Spirituality Meets Nature

By Andrew Wayment | Arcadia Author

Author Andrew Wayment is an attorney by profession and an outdoorsman by passion. His latest book, Idaho Ruffed Grouse Hunting: The Heartbeat of the Woods explores one of his favorite hunts: The ruffed grouse bird. In this post, he explains why the ruffed grouse holds symbolism for many bird hunters.

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  [I am] one who cannot.”   

--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac   

In religious and secular texts throughout time, birds have stood as symbols for various—oftentimes religious or sacred— concepts. The most well-known is perhaps the dove, which has symbolism in various religions for love and peace. Notably, in the New Testament, the dove is a symbol of the Spirit of God. As for gallinaceous, or chicken-like birds, many have considered them symbols of a loving, protective, industrious mother. In Christianity, the mother hen is a symbol of Christ’s love for His people as shown by His question to Jerusalem:  “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”   

Another symbolic bird (however surprising) is the quail.  If you remember, when the ancient Israelites complained about leaving the flesh pots of Egypt, the Lord sent them unfathomable numbers of quail to supplement their diet of manna. Thus, quail have taken on the symbol of God’s munificence, but also of His wrath when the Israelites took more than they needed.

Author Andrew Wayment during a hunting day.
Author Andrew Wayment during a hunting day.

Even the raven—who’s had a bad rap as of late (think Edgar Allan Poe “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’”) — has some religious symbolism. If you recall, when the prophet Elijah, of the Old Testament, sealed the heavens so that it would not rain for three years, the Lord told him to go to the brook Cherith and stated: “I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.”  (1 Kings 17:4). The Bible then reports: “And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening, and he drank of the brook.” Thus, the raven was the heaven-sent deliverer of sustenance for Elijah. 

Not all birds have religious significance, but still may serve as an important symbol.  Within the last century or so, the canary has taken on an important temporal symbolism. If you recall, coal miners would take a canary down into the mine with them and if it stopped singing, the miners knew they needed to get out of the mine because the air quality was life-threatening. Thus, the metaphorical “canary in a coal mine” has become a symbol of any indicator species that attests to the health of an ecosystem, which leads us to the question at hand: what does the grouse symbolize? 

A ruffed grouse caught by the author.
A ruffed grouse caught by the author.

The thing about grouse—all of the numerous subspecies throughout the world—is that they only thrive in the wild.  Attempts have been made to raise them in captivity and, for the most part, such attempts have failed.  Although grouse have at times been called foolhens because of their naivety to man and his ways, they, unlike their gallinaceous cousins, cannot be domesticated.  Each species is inextricably tied to the particular environ in which they dwell.  May I suggest then that grouse are a symbol of the wild and wilderness, which has both temporal and spiritual undertones.   

Nowhere is this truer than with the ruffed grouse. The ruffed grouse of North America needs the thick, diverse growth of a young forest to survive. Old growth is no good for the ruffed grouse. The conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac that “the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.” However, he qualified this equation by warning, “yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” Thus, for Leopold, the ruffed grouse symbolized the very life and health of the forest.       
 

One of the author’s pointer dogs points to a bird in the wilderness.
One of the author’s pointer dogs points to a bird in the wilderness.

Ruffed grouse hunters, through their intimate contact with nature, probably understand the symbolic spiritual connection between the ruffed grouse and the wild better than most. In his book That’s Ruff: Reflections from Grouse Country, George King so aptly wrote:

The grouse, to the grouse hunter, is the very spirit of all the things around him—the breath of life in the rocks and trees and fallen leaves, in fragrant bogs and mossy logs and mountain tops.  I don’t know if the Lord made the grouse to fit the cover, or the cover to fit the grouse, but whichever it was, He must surely consider the result to be among His finest work.  

Regardless of which came first, grouse hunters understand that the grouse and his wild covers are a match made in Heaven.

Whether we admit it or not, we all need wild and wilderness in our lives. Edward Abbey stated that “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Likewise, John Muir wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” After twenty years of grouse hunting, I can firmly attest that walking through the grouse woods, with a shotgun in hand and following a bird dog, is as good a place as any to go to commune with Nature and Nature’s God. The grouse we pursue are just a symbol of something much deeper.   
 
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