A few months ago, on one of my little adventures in the bush, I had an experience that I just can’t forget. I had decided to go for a walk to explore the bush along the edge of a clearing. The clearing was roughly square-shaped, and I walked along one full edge, intent on checking out the corner, which had some vague interest for me. As I walked, I was pleased to find an abundance of wild strawberries growing in the clearing! I stopped to pick a few, savouring their intense flavour. Along the way, I came across a little pile of cut firewood; someone was obviously going to come back for that some day. The bush was pretty thick, but to be honest, I wasn’t looking into it much. I was distracted by the strawberries.
As I got close to the corner, I could see that there was a little opening in the trees where a couple of them that had fallen down in a wind. With one more step, a flurry of activity erupted from the bush. Grouse — local people call them “chickens” — flew every which way, as though with that one step into the bush I had tripped an invisible laser-alarm, and they could not sit still. I hadn’t seen any of them until they all moved — their camouflage is excellent — and after they flew away only one remained.
This one, lone bird did the strangest thing, this thing that I cannot shake the memory of. It was crouched on the ground, among the fallen leaves, again invisible against the background. It shuffled forward and I could see it again, and it made the strangest sound — exactly like a puppy whimpering. It did it again, a little shuffle and a distinctive whimper. I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a puppy. It did it a third time, which allowed me to reassure myself that’s exactly what I was hearing.
How strange, I thought, and then realized that there must be a nest of young ones nearby, not yet able to fly away to safety. I was pretty sure I knew where it was — to my left, behind a log and near the point I had seen all the adults fly away from. I was very tempted to walk over and take a look, but the pitiful display of this lone grouse made me hesitate and ultimately change my mind. It had intentionally stayed behind when the others flew away to sacrifice itself to this strange, upright predator. It drew attention to itself with its cries and movement, making sure I could both see and hear it, the pathetic whimper as if to say “eat me, I’m weak and defenseless — an easy meal.” I just couldn’t satisfy my curiosity — to find the nest and see the little ones — after what this adult bird had done for its young.
But not just for its young; for all the young that were in nests nearby. I knew from the number of adults that there must be at least three nests, and this one stayed behind to save the young of them all. You know, all around the world we see incredible acts of sacrifice by people for their children, but not as often for others’ children. I, for one, had never seen such a display first hand, of an animal so willing to die that it would call out to the predator to ensure its strategy of misdirection and ultimately, its sacrifice, would be successful.
There is not much I can say. It was humbling. That grouse showed intelligence, compassion and courage. And it’s just a bird, with a brain no larger than half a walnut. I guess courage, compassion and intelligence don’t have anything to do with brain size, but it does make me wonder if I have been letting myself off easy, not demanding much of myself lately. My idea of an act of courage these days is to go into a crowded room where I don’t know anyone. Compassion consists of smiling respectfully at strangers, whatever state they are in (i.e. sober or not, poor or not), and my intelligence has been primarily engaged in knitting and dreaming up floor plans for tiny houses. I think it might be time for another challenge. I think it might be time for an extreme compassion adventure! It might even be time for a sacrifice, and damn it, I had better not complain, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be whimpering on the ground, hoping the predator will eat me instead of the children nearby. Wow.