How a Ruffed Grouse Became This Grieving Husband's Best Friend

He didn’t think he could go on without his wife. But God sent him just the right companion.

Posted in , Feb 25, 2021

Bob Flach holds Lulu the ruffed grouse

This may sound odd, but I’m best friends with a bird. Not a pet bird either. Lulabelle is a ruffed grouse, a native game bird that’s related to pheasants and partridges. Lulu is bigger than a pigeon, with a short crest on her head, a long fan-shaped tail and the most beautiful gold, beige and dark brown feathers. I used to hunt ruffed grouse, but I quit for good after I met Lulabelle.

I’ll never forget that spring day in 2017. I was on my tractor, smoothing out a trail on our wooded land, when a grouse showed up. She parked herself on the ground right in front of the tractor and chirped. Wouldn’t budge. Not even when I revved the engine. I hopped off the tractor.

“Shoo,” I said, waving my hands. “Get out of my way.” But that bird wouldn’t listen. “Are you crazy? Why won’t you move?” The grouse just gave me a beady brown-eyed stare and chirped some more. Finally she scuttled off the trail.

Back at the house, I told my wife, Jeanne, what had happened. We both laughed. Critters of all kinds—rabbits, squirrels, deer—live on our 42 acres, so we have plenty of animal stories. But a pushy grouse was a new one. I wasn’t 100 percent sure if this bird was female, but I theorized that maybe she’d been protecting a nest when she stood up to my tractor.

A few days later I rode out in my golf cart. Not too far down the trail, there she was. I got out of the cart and walked slowly toward her. She didn’t seem to mind. Step by step, I drew closer. She looked at me and made a funny call: quirt, quirt, quirt.

“Well, well,” I said, taking off my cap and squatting next to her. “You’re quite the bird.” I held the cap out to her. She pecked at it. Then she ruffled her collar of dark feathers and kept quirting. When she fixed those brown eyes on me, I saw something I never expected from a wild bird—trust.

“Hi, Lulabelle,” I said, settling on a name. “Nice to meet you.” She fluttered her wings and sealed the deal with a quirt.

From then on, we were buddies. Whenever I’d go out in the cart, I’d stop and call for Lulabelle. More often than not, she’d skitter out from the trees and run up to me, hopping onto the floorboard.

“How are you today, Lulu?” I’d ask while she untied one of my shoelaces. “Are you having a good week?” She would chirp back and peck on my pant leg. From there, she usually jumped onto the seat next to me, then atop the seat back. While I talked, she’d flit onto the steering wheel and stay a few minutes before fluttering back to the ground. For fun, we played with my cap. She never tired of pecking at it. Sometimes her quirts turned into soft trills that reminded me of a cat’s purr.

Nothing bothered that grouse. If Jeanne came along, Lulabelle didn’t mind. In fact, she cozied up to Jeanne. Crowds didn’t rattle her either. Every summer, our two daughters and their families camp in a clearing in our woods. Boy, were they surprised when a wild grouse welcomed them that year! One evening, Lulabelle jumped into my son-in-law’s lap while he was reading by the campfire. Another time she moseyed into their camper and perched on the couch for a while.

Winter passed, and Lulu survived to greet me the following spring. I was happy to see her again. That summer, though, Jeanne got sick and spent a month in the hospital. The doctors diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. They said she had only a few months left. I asked God to help me stay strong for Jeanne, even though my own heart broke into a million pieces.

Jeanne wanted to be home, so I arranged for hospice care. She was so weak, she mostly lay on the couch. The one thing we could do together was visit Lulabelle. Two or three times a day, I wrapped Jeanne in blankets and rigged her oxygen tank to the cart. Not far down the trail, Lulabelle would greet us—quirt, quirt, quirt. Without fail, she’d hop aboard the cart.

“Hi, Lulu,” Jeanne would whisper, holding out her hand. Lulabelle would lightly peck her fingers. She seemed to sense that Jeanne’s time was drawing near. Lulu’s company calmed and soothed Jeanne, and her pain ebbed. Every day, I thanked God for that ruffed grouse.

Jeanne died in December of 2018. Grief hit me so hard, I didn’t want to go on either. We’d been married nearly 50 years. Jeanne could read my mind. I could finish her sentences. Without her, I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. Or sit down at the kitchen table for coffee.

Finally, after months, I forced myself go for a ride in the golf cart. Quirt, quirt, quirt! Memories of Jeanne holding her hand out to the grouse flooded back. I broke down. You’d think a big man like me, crying and carrying on, would scare off a wild bird. Not Lulu. Calm as could be, she cocked her little head and laid those bright brown eyes on me. Her trust broke me wide open.

“Oh, Lulu,” I sobbed, resting my head against the steering wheel. “I can’t go on without Jeanne. It just hurts too much.” Then I blubbered on and told the grouse things I would never tell another person. I’d been taught that a man never cries or shows any weakness. You hold yourself strong and carry your burdens alone. Only this time, I couldn’t.

Lulu purred, keeping her eyes fixed on me. I’m here, she seemed to say. Let it all out.

Day after day I got in my cart and headed for the woods to meet up with Lulabelle. I talked. She listened and purred. I unloaded everything. She never flinched. Little by little, my heart began to heal. God hadn’t left me comfortless. He’d brought me Lulu. Maybe I could survive.

A year after Jeanne’s death, winter weather set in again. I stopped going out in my cart. But I had come out the other side of my grief—thanks to Lulabelle.

Spring came around, and I wondered if my feathered friend had survived another harsh Minnesota winter. One day I went to check on her. Branches crackled one by one in the breeze as I stepped off the cart.

“Lulu!” I called out. “Lulu! Here, Lulabelle…”

Then a familiar quirt sounded from the trees. I turned to see a burst of white-tipped brown wings flutter onto the trail. Leaning down, I gathered her gently in my hands.

“Oh, Lulabelle,” I said. “You’re still here.”

The grouse purred and lightly pecked at my fingers. I was glad to still have my best friend, the one who’d helped me weather the darkest, coldest season of my life. I know Lulu will leave me too one day, but I’ll be okay. God always sends the right helper at the right time. One of mine just happened to have feathers and beady brown eyes.

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