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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Sharptailed Grouse

Sharptailed Grouse in the windbreak at Homestead House. Photographed by A.J. during a writing retreat, 2009.
. . .
Since my earliest days on the ranch, I’ve regularly seen coveys of Sharptailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus though my folks and the neighbors usually referred to them as “prairie chickens.” The term probably dates from pioneer times because the chubby birds resemble chickens in size, habits and sounds. No doubt they were among the easiest game for settlers to hunt, providing a chicken for practically every empty pot.

And several types of chicken-like fowl native to the prairies made identification even more confusing. Sharptailed grouse are spotted brown and white and have short, pointed tails. Among their relatives are Spruce grouse, Blue, Ruffed, Gunnison Sage and Greater Sage Grouse; White-tailed, Willow and Rock ptarmigan and Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens. All once thrived in North America. Ptarmigan live mostly in the north and northwest. Prairie Chickens prefer open prairie but the rest seem to like prairie cut with gullies where shrubs grow for cover and food sources. All are well adapted to the extremes of heat and cold the prairie offers but their numbers have been greatly reduced by humans and their accompanying guns and predatory pets (dogs and cats).

In Windbreak, I wrote about butchering and eating a grouse that we’d accidentally hit on the highway.

I asked George to stop, caught it–it was bleeding– wrung its neck and then realized I had just committed an illegal act beside a busy highway. We brought it home and Jim and Mavis were here so we added three game hens to the roasting pot and had the grouse for supper. I had to endure a lot of hilarity about eating roadkills but I told them that’s the only way we poor ranchers survive.
-- Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, October 25, page 34

That brief reference fails to show my appreciation of the sharptails, either as residents of the prairie and part of the work force that conserves grasslands or as dinner. The mention does point to one of the dangers of life for the grouse, though I don’t see as many grouse dead on the highway as rabbits, skunks, coyotes and foxes.

Sharptailed grouse forage on the ground in spring and summer, eating mostly leaves, green shoots and flowers along with a few insects. Anyone familiar with the way chickens pursue grasshoppers and other bugs will be instantly charmed to see grouse leaping in the air to snatch flying bugs in the same way. In summer, more than 50 percent of the grouse diet may be grass, according to birdweb.org, though insects and especially grasshoppers are an important food. The diet of young grouse, say some sources, may be as much as 90% bugs. Experts indicate flower parts may make up 25 percent of the breeding-season diet, while in fall grouse eat seeds, leaves, berries, waste grain, buds, and flowers. In winter, sharptails often roost and graze in shelter under trees and bushes; significant winter foods include the dried fruit, seeds and buds of willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, plum, buffaloberry, juneberry, birch, aspen, rose and juniper.

Apparently open water is not essential to the grouse, which is good since many parts of our prairie don’t offer it. Instead the grouse satisfy their requirements from their food. Early in the season the birds cluster in groups of 5 to 10, perhaps families; later they join into larger coveys.

Like the better-known Greater prairie-chicken, sharptailed males dance and coo as the mating season begins; authorities say this causes the females to initiate the breeding cycle. Males return to the same dancing grounds, often located on open high ground each year, usually in March. There they rattle their tails, stomp their feet and display their feathers, beginning 45 minutes before sunrise and continuing for a couple of hours afterward. Females stroll through the furiously performing males, selecting one with which to mate. One source, landhelp.info, says females are “polygamous and probably promiscuous.”

Sharptailed grouse usually lay a five to seventeen eggs in a shallow depression in the earth under a shrub or thick clump of grass, often lining the nest with grass, leaves, or ferns. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching, but the hen continues to lead them to feeding areas.

Grouse look ungainly in flight, like balloons with wings, but hunters and other experts say that for a short distance they are able to escape hawks like the peregrine in horizontal flight. Often we spot the covey because one or more of them is perched in the top of the junipers, where the branches appear too slender to hold them, heads erect as they watch us. When one takes flight, they all do, chuckling and clucking in alarm. The flapping of their wings is miniature thunder in the sky as they head for the nearest cover, a bunch of trees or tall prairie grass.

Once, a covey landed on the power lines leading to our house. From the kitchen window I watched a routine that had me snorting with laughter as the birds tried desperately to balance themselves on the wire. Wings out, they leaned ahead and back as the wire swung madly. If one achieved balance, the one next to it flapped off-kilter and they staggered into one another. One by one they gave up and flew into the junipers until only one was left, still fluttering and unable to achieve balance.

My uncle and my father often exchanged reports of seeing the grouse, pleased to have them as part of their ranches’ wildlife. The prairie between the two ranches seemed to offer just what the grouse need in food, concealment and privacy. For winter shelter, they like groves of trees like the windbreaks around our houses, but in summer they range widely over the mostly treeless prairie. In winter they often roost in or under trees or deliberately allow themselves to be covered in snow. Often I have found round holes under our windbreak trees with wingmarks on each side. When they are ready to emerge, the grouse simply row upward with their wings and fly out the top of a drift.

Natural grouse predators are many; hawks, eagles, owls and coyotes all make a meal of the sharptails when they can. We often find flattened circles of grouse feathers near the windbreak trees, as killers no doubt creep close while the grouse are sleeping or eating.

Though natural predators take their toll, it’s humans who do the most damage to the sharptailed grouse, as they do to all other wildlife. Since two houses have been built between the ranches originally owned by the Hasselstrom brothers, I’ve been watching the animals’ habits. John and Harold used to compare notes on the herd of whitetail deer that would move east down our draw then circle through an area of small waterholes and trees and graze past my uncle’s place a few days later. “You should be seeing that old doe and her bunch today,” one of them would say. Now we rarely see the deer, because the new houses are directly in the path they used to travel. I often hear a dog barking at one of the homes but no stray dogs have shown up here, so perhaps it is not free to chase wildlife. My lessee, who lives on my uncle’s former ranch, often sees a covey of 35 of more grouse, as do we, so presumably they can still navigate the distance safely.

Once upon a time, I saw a flash outside my basement study window and heard a thud. I went outside and saw a grouse huddled under an outdoor table.

A week before, I’d been in the windbreak trees when a grouse shot past me at eyebrow level and dropped to the ground under the protective cover of the thick juniper branches. A northern harrier hawk veered up and away, its hunt foiled.

So I assumed this grouse had dived under the deck for sanctuary, though I couldn’t spot a hawk. For a half hour, I kept the dogs inside so the bird could rest and recover from its fear. But when it was still tucked under the table an hour later I crept close and touched it: dead. In escaping from the hawk, it must have been unable to slow down and hit the side of the house.

I skinned the grouse and soaked it in salt water overnight to get the blood from its traumatic death out of the flesh. Dismantling the grouse the next morning, I studied its architecture: the legs were small and thin and the wings had very little flesh. The breasts were huge–musculature for that swift flight. The flesh was dark red, much darker than turkey.

Years ago, after a successful grouse hunt, we had a half dozen of the birds. We’d found them in the juniper trees in a pasture and their crops were stuffed with juniper berries. I emptied the crops and, after gutting the birds, stuffed them with the berries, adding a tart flavor to the flesh.

Since only one grouse had been killed this time, I cut it up, splitting the breast and leaving the back in one piece and the legs connected to the thighs. I rolled each piece in a mixture of egg, milk and spices and then in flour and seared it quickly in a hot fry pan. Then I placed them in a casserole, mixed milk with a can of cream of mushroom soup and baked the dish at 300 degrees for an hour and a half, until a thermometer in the breast registered 170 degrees.

Grouse does not taste like chicken. I’d compare its rich flavor to tender venison or antelope harvested correctly, without time to be afraid. The meat was so rich and tasty that I didn’t need to eat much of it to feel satisfied. I mentally apologized to the hawk who probably missed its dinner but was grateful for the opportunity to make this bird’s death into an experience.

# # #

For more information:
For photographs, search “sharptailed grouse photos” on the internet.

www.lauraerickson.com provides videos of the grouse in their mating dance.

Several sites including www.junglewalk.com have recorded grouse sounds.

landhelp.info provides considerable information on managing resources so as to encourage wildlife on farms and ranches.

For specific information to help you identify one of the group, see www.allaboutbirds.org

Or look in a bird identification book such as The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley (Knopf).
I received a copy of this wonderful book for Christmas, thanks to neighbor and friend Tamara. It’s slightly possible she was tired of me calling to say, “I just saw a bird I can’t identify. It has a yellow breast and is kinda gray on top and . . .”

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The Pipestone Meat Cutters Cap

Linda wearing the Pipestone cap.
. . .
Folks tend to stare when I wear my black corduroy cap labeled PIPESTONE with the crossed butcher knife and sharpening tool on the front. Of course, the cap came with a story.

The occasion was one of the many readings I’ve done at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. The reading took place after 1991, because the poem that occasioned this story was first published in Land Circle that year, and in 1993 appeared in Dakota Bones, published by Dave Pichaske, who still teaches in Marshall.

The poem I read that evening was “Butchering the Crippled Heifer.” This is not an easy poem to read or to hear. I consider it an important poem because it raises difficult questions about meat-eating and expresses the ideas in graphic images. I love to read the poem because it is dramatic; several people who have commented on it mention its strong religious overtones. Still, before choosing to read it, I try to determine if I will have the kind of audience that will appreciate the poem’s complexities.

At the end of my reading for the evening, people gathered around me to comment and to have their books signed. I noticed the quiet man wearing the Pipestone cap, but I couldn’t make out the insignia. Finally he was able to approach and did so with his cap in his hand.

He really appreciated the poem, he said, because very few people, even or perhaps especially people who eat meat, understand what it’s like to kill a bovine and to butcher it. He believed that I understood and respected the process-- as he did, because he was a professional meat cutter, his skills represented by the symbols he pointed out on the cap: a butcher knife and a sharpening steel. And then he said that because I understood, he was naming me an honorary professional meat cutter-- and he gave me the cap.

I wore it the rest of the evening. Sometimes I wear it when I’m reading the poem, and tell the story with pride.

Here’s the poem.

Butchering the Crippled Heifer

First:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp aim the pistol at her ear. Stand close.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp She chews slowly, eyes closed. Fire.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp She drops. Kicks. Sighs.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut her throat and stand back.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Blood bubbles and steams.

Then:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp wrap chain around each ankle,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp spread the back legs with a singletree.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp The tractor growls, lifting;
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp the carcass sways.

Next:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp drive the knife point in,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp open the belly like tearing cloth,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp the blade just under the skin.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut around the empty udder.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Don't puncture the stomach.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Sheathe the knife and reach in.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Wrap your bare arms around the slick guts.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Press your face against warm flesh.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Find the ridge of backbone; tear the
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp membranes loose. Hold the anus shut;
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp pull hard until the great blue stomach bag
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp spills into the tub at your feet.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Jerk the windpipe loose with a sucking moan,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp her last sound.

Straighten.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Breathe blood-scent, clean digested grass.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Plunge one arm into the tub, cut loose the heart,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp and squeeze the last clots out; slice the liver
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp away from the green gall, put it all in cool water.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Eat fresh liver and onions for supper,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp baked heart tomorrow.

Finally:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut off the head and feet,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp haul them and the guts to the pasture:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp coyotes will feast tonight.

Then:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp pull the skin taut with one hand,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp slice the spider web of tissue with care.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Save the tail for soup.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Drape the hide on the fence.

Let her hang:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp sheet-wrapped, through three cool October days,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp while leaves yellow and
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp coyotes howl thanksgiving.

Cut her up:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp bring one quarter at a time to the kitchen table.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Toss bones into the big soup kettle
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp to simmer, the marrow sliding out. Chunk
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp scraps, pack them in canning jars.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut thick red steaks, wrap them in white paper,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp labeled for the freezer.

Make meat:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp worship at a bloody altar, knives singing praises
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp for the heifer's health, for flesh she made
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp of hay pitched at forty below zero last winter.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Your hands are red with her blood,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp slick with her fat.

You know
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp where your next meal is coming from.


Copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
published by Fulcrum Publishing.
This poem may be found on pages 317-319 of the 1991 edition (cloth)
and on pages 356-358 of the 2008 Anniversary Edition (paper).

Land Circle is a featured book on this website. Click here to read all about the book.

Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom
published 1993 by Spoon River Poetry Press (now Plains Press).
This poem may be found on pages 54-55.

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The Amazing Benefits of Grassfed Meat

. . .
I’ve just read a great article by Missoula, MT, author Richard Manning (eight books, including Rewilding the West, Against the Grain and Grasslands) in the November/December 2009 issue of Grit Magazine, pp. 36-39. The title says it all: “The Amazing Benefits of Grassfed Meat: A profitable model brings healthy beef to market.”

“For years now,” Manning begins, “I have been fascinated by the permanence and healing power of grassland. If we respect the great original wisdom of the prairies, I’m convinced we can heal the wounds inflicted on the American landscape by industrial agriculture.” Manning explains that he first considered this possibility when a friend decided to raise bison, but soon realized it worked just as well [or better? Adds Linda] with cattle. Now there is diverse collection of people across the nation raising grassfed beef and dairy.

And, says Manning, “Powerful solutions self-replicate. Like viruses, they creep from one farm to the next, eventually exploding in exponential growth. They scale up.” And grassfed beef production, he believes, is poised to scale up.

“It is not unrealistic to expect that we as a nation could convert millions of acres of grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs) to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the bargain."

Among the benefits of permanent grass pasture Manning notes are the following:
--- a more humane livestock system,
--- a healthier human diet
--- less deadly E. Coli
--- elimination of feedlots
--- more wildlife habitat nationwide
--- enormous savings in energy
--- virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on those lands
--- elimination of catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin, and, “most intriguingly,” says Manning,
--- a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases.

Manning discusses The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, with examples of how these families operate. He supports each of the points on the list above.

“We are slowly learning,” says Manning, “that human enterprises work best when they mimic nature’s diversity.” At first, he suggests, many organic farmers believed this meant vegetarianism. But organic farmers found out “the hard way” that they could not make their operations balance out-- either biologically or economically-- without animals, just as nature provided.

# # #

For more information:
Website for Grit Magazine
For information about grassfed animals see the website for the American Grassfed Association
and the website for Eat Wild

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