COLUMN: "Bird, not smoke monster"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, April 11, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Bird, not smoke monster
By Aaron J. Brown

The male ruffed grouse, commonly referred to as partridge, is known for its drumming – repetitive mechanical-sounding thumps designed to attract females and declare its territory. Using its powerful wings and chest the bird creates a wholly unique and resonant noise against the ground or nearby logs.

Hey, don’t I sound like a wily, woodsy sage? I’m dropping grouse references like Ornitho … uh, bird guy. Here’s the thing. It took almost a year of wild speculation after five years of living in the woods for me to properly explain the sound we kept hearing behind the house.

THEORY #1: “Sounds like the neighbor’s having a hard time starting his generator.”

“The neighbor doesn’t have a generator. Why would he be starting a generator now, anyway?”

“Maybe it’s a tractor.”

“The neighbor doesn’t have a tractor. Why would he need a tractor?”

“Huh, well, whatever it is, it’s not starting.”

THEORY #2: “Is that ice forming on the lake? What a spooky sound!”

THEORY #3: “Neighbor’s having a hard time starting his truck. It’s not that cold. He must need a new truck.”

THEORY #4: “Is that ice breaking up on the lake? What a spooky sound!

The most outlandish theory came after watching the TV show “Lost.” For today’s purposes, all you need to know is that there is a smoke monster in the show that makes this “putt putt putt” sound right before it goes “aoooo aoooo!” and throws people into trees and other hard objects.

THEORY: #5: “Are we sure that isn’t a smoke monster? It sounds like Smokey.”

“What would a smoke monster be doing here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you go check?”

“I don’t want to.”

Eventually I did muster the courage to stand outside and check. It was morning. I was wearing a bathrobe and it was about 45 degrees outside. I mention that only because it was the most important factor to me at that particular time. The sound had been repeating since before dawn, dozens and dozens of drumming noises from what seemed to be 18 feet from our bathroom window. Maybe it was some kind of maniacal gopher.

THEORY #6: Gopher

But it was not a gopher. Rather, it was … The noise had stopped.

I stood outside on the porch for a few minutes. Total silence. If there really was a smoke monster in the woods it surely would have picked me up and smashed me against the garage apron by now, if only because people under 30 aren’t supposed to wear bathrobes. Oh, wait. I’m 30 now. Never mind.

Anyway, I went back inside to take a phone call and the sound quickly resumed. The mystery remained. It was later, at Easter dinner, that we mentioned the sound to my wife’s father. He thought about our description, the ice, the engine, the smoke monster. Then he replicated the sound exactly.

“That’s it!”

Yeah, he said, it’s a partridge. He must be lonely, looking for love.

The end. Except it isn’t. I’m not exactly city folk. I grew up in the country and can recognize a grouse when I see one. If I can go this long without knowing something so basic to the realm of partridge-dom, maybe I really do need to log off the computer more often and experience the natural world.

That said, do you know how we found out that my father-in-law was right about the sound? We looked it up on the internet and downloaded the sound. Maybe it should be my ring tone. What’s that sound? It’s the future. And also the past. Either way, if you happen to be a female grouse reading this column (I don’t hunt!) please consider choosing Mr. Birdy VonThumpsalot behind our house as a mate. We could use some peace and quiet.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Anonymous says

    Great article as usual! Good chuckle!

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