Of Groundhogs and Grouse

By , February 2, 2016

It is February 2nd, Candlemas, and one of my family’s longest-standing pseudoholidays, Groundhog Day.

A couple of years ago I described how my family, led by my father, used to make a big deal about Groundhog Day (see Groundhog Day, Alaska Style). These days, I mostly try to make a point of watching the Bill Murray/Harold Ramis movie about the day, which I really enjoy, and perhaps listening to John McCutcheon’s hilarious little song about it.

Beyond that, I have to admit, as I have before (see The Circle Turns Toward Spring) that even while my family accepts February as the start of spring, and enjoy Groundhog Day, we really look to a different creature to act as our harbinger of spring. That would be the sooty grouse.

The grouse formerly known as blue, now officially called sooty grouse, has a different colloquial name in Alaska: hooter. In the spring, the male grouse call to the females with a deep hoot, that sounds like someone blowing on a jug. It can be heard for miles. We often hear them on the far shore of Lynn Canal.

Unfortunately, human hearing doesn’t locate lower decibel sound very well, so it’s kind of hard to track hooters by listening. Mostly, I try to remember to take a .22 or air rifle with me when I go out in the woods. Once we even had one come into the yard (see Hunting for Dummies Part 1) which made for a very nice dinner that evening. I should point out that this happened in October. The other time we saw a hooter on this side of the ridge, it was in December.

By the time the hooters reach full voice, we have too many other tasks to complete around the homestead to devote time to hunting. That makes hooters very much an opportunistic meal for us. Better to let them come to us than to go out looking for them.

Maybe the same could be said about spring in Alaska?

By the way, as you can see in the comments below, my friend Angie tells me that we now officially call Groundhog Day “Marmot Day” in Alaska. Apparently, it changed in 2010! I am so out of touch. Here’s a short, funny article about it from Alaska Dispatch News.

4 Responses to “Of Groundhogs and Grouse”

  1. Tom says:

    “Unfortunately, human hearing doesn’t locate lower decibel sound very well, so it’s kind of hard to track hooters by listening.”

    That’s very interesting. Helps to explain something.

    I saw an episode of one of those “Some more people in Alaska” show. An old guy was out hunting hooters. Even after he got into their general area, and heard them, he couldn’t tell where they were coming from. When he’d hear one, he’d turn his head this way, then that way. Always unsure. In the end, using about 40 years of experience there, he finally wandered around in the woods, adjusting course here and there, and found one. About 30 feet up on a branch in a tree. And in his case, his .22 did the trick in one shot.

    All together, validation of your thoughts on decibels and firepower.

  2. Angie says:

    Remember, it’s now officially called “Marmot Day” in Alaska.
    And in the rest of the U.S., if the applicable rodent sees its shadow, it portends six more weeks of winter. At this latitude? Only six more weeks of winter? That’s frakking awesome!

  3. Mark Zeiger says:

    Really, Angie? How did I manage to miss that? That’s great!

    As for the six weeks–funny, when I count six weeks from February 2nd, I get pretty darn close to March 21st. Funny how that works . . . .

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Tom, I learned the thing about low decibels from positioning subwoofers. While the techs get very . . . well, technical about where to place satellite speakers, they tell us the subwoofer can go anywhere in a room (although corners are best for added reverb) because we can’t tell, directionally, where those low notes come from.

    I don’t know if this works for other animals, but the lower notes of the hooter may be a survival adaptation?

    I had some friends in Juneau, (deceased now, sadly) who were better hunters than I’ll ever be. They used to switch to hooters when they got skunked deer hunting, which means they killed the grouse with the weapon they carried–a .30-30! I always thought that was literally overkill, but who was I to criticize?

    “”Some more people in Alaska” show”–I like that a lot! That is one of the main reasons we ignore pitches from producers of “reality” and “documentary” shows. Mind if I use that next chance I get?

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