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Totems: Grouse

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

When is there true balance between male and female energies? When there is full development of both aspects in each individual. What is lacking must be filled in; strongest, softened. Everything is itself and its opposite. I AM GROUSE. Through my spectacular display, females choose me, as I choose them. In union, we join a greater purpose. Depending where you begin, the spiral ascends and descends or curls within and without; yet at the end the cycle is complete and whole. Who can tell which is the beginning and which is the end of a spiral?

You’re more likely to hear than see one, but that smaller-than-a-pheasant, bigger-than-a-quail, primarily ground-dwelling game bird giving sound to hemlock groves and other deciduous forests, thickets and swamps across northern America and much of Canada is a male Ruffed Grouse. Though Ruffed Grouse nest on the ground, they roost in trees. The thump-thump-ka-thump of his stout wings beats the air with a rapidity that quickly accelerates to the propeller-like sound of a motor starting. Yet the male grouse does not move an inch. Standing on a log, he leans back on his tail and lets his wings send out waves of compressed air. The compelling drumming is a love call to prospective females, and also a warning to challenging males. His drumming is combined with a dance of personal power during the spring mating season. If grouse is appearing in your life now, questions of power and purpose are being raised.

If you were to see him during mating season, he would be strutting proudly, head thrown back, and crest cocked, as his ruff glistens with iridescence. The small crest on its head reminds us that the pineal gland is the opening to Oneness and perhaps Enlightenment. The black ruff at the neck and shoulders is the fifth chakra bridge between spirit and physicality. The black color indicates the Void from which new growth and expressions come. When grouse appears, expect new energies to come into your life. If it is between March and May, their mating season, expect the call of wild romance.

His tail will be fanned, the better to display the handsome, black bands, wide at the tip. A hen’s mottled brown coloring is such effective camouflage that one would not notice her and her nest of leaves, grasses and feathers unless she moved. Once he has won his lady, the male Ruffed Grouse will remain monogamous all season, and help feed and care for his young. The South is the direction of growth and vitality; it is the home of the Child. Ruffed Grouse parents are very protective. They will sacrifice their lives to ward off predators by dragging a wing on the ground, turning in a spiral, feigning injury to draw attention to themselves, and away from their chicks. What is your relationship with your inner child? Do you care for, and protect your inner child? Are you running in circles without focus or on an ever-deepening inner journey? The south is also the place of trust. As a child, we trust everyone, whether they deserve that trust or not. As a spiritually mature adult, we know that trust is always an "inside job" based on self-knowledge. That being said, it is wise never to break the trust of grouse folks, for once trust is broken, you may never hear from them again. They would rather be solitary like their totem, than suffer the indignity of ruined friendship or love. A caution to those with this totem to temper the tendency to whine. To grouse about things means to complain.

The sacred spiral is an ancient universal depiction of cosmic energy symbolizing continuous cycles of growth, death and rebirth. From earliest times the spiral has been depicted everywhere from rock paintings to burial chambers. The famous spiraling knot work of the ancient Celts depicted the continuous creation and dissolution of the world. Hopi migration spirals kept a record of their wanderings. Have you ever thought about what a maze or labyrinth represents? Metaphysically, one can only enter and navigate through if one has left one’s old life to become an initiate on the spiritual path. The spiral connects us to both heaven and earth. In nature, spirals exist as atmospheric phenomena (hurricanes, tornadoes, whirlpools). Though a storm may rage about us like a tornado, we may remain calm and centered with this totem’s help. The shape of the Milky Way is a pinwheel spiral. In our bodies, we find spirals as fingerprints, cochlea, the double helix of our DNA, and spiraling pathways in the brain. Our hair grows in a spiral pattern. The geometric form characteristic of the Fibonacci series is the spiral - in seashells, flowers, cactus, tendrils, pinecones, snail shells, even goats with spiral horns. Slice open a red cabbage to see a compound spiral. And then there is the original spiral of the coiled snake.

Grouse is a power animal for dancers. Dancing and drumming are a vital part of grouse medicine. They have been used since ancient times to induce trance states. Whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition use the energy of the spiral to enter the Silence in the center of the coil. Sun-wise spirals draw in energy; moon-wise spirals repel energy. As a path to the Infinite, dervishes use movement to realize the full potential of the soul’s earth journey through time. If you could travel to the center of the spiral and bring back power, what would you choose? Would it be your ascent or your undoing? Grouse encourages you to dance freely, no matter who you are. Dancing is a powerful form of self-expression. Paradoxically, when they are not dancing, singing, acting or making music, grouse folks are usually in total solitude.

Dancing is also a potent form of courtship. Spiral dances connect the male and female energies. At pow-wows, one can often see Plains native dancers performing the exact movements of the grouse as an honoring dance. Sage grouse and Sharp-tailed grouse display their strutting, spiral courtship dance in large, open grassy areas called leks with many other males. They droop their wings, erect their spiky tail feathers, and puff themselves up, inflating the colorful air sacs on their necks, and constricting their esophagus to produce a popping noise. Competing for dominance and the attention of the hens, they pivot with rapidly stamping feet (about 20 times per second), and rattle their tail feathers while turning in spirals or moving forward. Each male will defend his territory, rushing at other males if they cross over into their traditional stamping ground. Usually neither male is hurt. A characteristic of folks with this power animal is to have very specific boundaries, based on self-esteem and self-knowledge. These grouse are not monogamous, nor do they care for their young. Only the most dominant one or two males get to mate with all the females, like a sultan with a harem. Females then nest and raise their young.

Rambunctious chicks must be restrained from tumbling over the rims of nests before wing quills sprout. Grouse chicks can walk as soon as they are hatched. Grouse that survive to winter grow incredibly thick, warm feathers, while their feet develop comb-like fringes on their toes like miniature snowshoes, which serve that same purpose. Ruffed Grouse use the snow to their advantage. If this is your totem, you probably spend a lot of time outdoors, even in winter and enjoy hearty health. In cold spells, grouse sometimes hollow into deep, drifted snow, creating caverns they warm with their breath and bodies. In blizzards, Ruffed Grouse are known to snuggle under the tips of weighted hemlocks and allow the snow to surround them. Walking in snow-laden woods in winter with my dog Thunder, we’d never see a grouse until surprised, it exploded into flight. Grouse have short wings adapted to maneuvering in underbrush, and must rapidly beat their wings to stay in the air. After a grouse has been repeatedly flushed out, its breast muscles become so fatigued, because of inadequate blood supply, it can be picked up by hand.

Though western grouse also eat insects, all Ruffed Grouse are vegetarians, eating seeds, berries and young leaves in summer; buds, catkins and twigs in winter. Being a vegetarian might suit you if Ruffed Grouse is strongly in your life. Not so with grouse’s predators who enjoy its plump, chicken-like flesh. There are many predators for this much-in-demand bird; none as much as humans. In winter, when mid-west and western plateaus are covered with snow, Sage grouse and Sharp-tailed grouse depend on sagebrush for food and shelter. They have declined sharply first from overhunting by raptors, snakes, mammals, and especially humans, and then every year more habitat loss. Pioneer farmers cultivated thousands of acres. Farm expansion, industry, and sprawl increase encroachment, leaving grouse with only 1% of its original range. The loss of these extraordinary birds would be a tragedy, not only because of their spectacular beauty and elaborate behavior, but also for their irreplaceable gene pool. It would also confirm the loss of America’s grasslands, for as the grouse goes, so goes the land.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for over 35 years. As an interfaith minister, and advocate and steward for the natural world, Cie lives and works shamanically, with light and sound, offering healing for both people and animals. For Healing in person or long-distance, Training, or to purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com

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