Now, about that partridge in a pear tree, we need to talk.
It’s not really a partridge, not technically, not in this country. Mainers commonly refer to the ruffed grouse as a partridge, and that’s understandable. It resembles the various partridge species of Europe, and certainly the English colonists would have thought it to be a partridge. It’s not quite.
Let’s get the stuffy science out of the way. The ruffed grouse is a member of the animal kingdom and is classified as a bird. So far, so good. It belongs to the order galliformes, which includes most of the chicken-like birds in the world. It is classified in the pheasant family, along with turkeys, pheasants and domestic chickens. From here, the lines get a little blurry. Some scientists lump them together with partridges into one family. Others, including most American scientists, separate them into a subfamily distinct from Old World partridges. These North American birds include grouse, prairie-chickens and ptarmigans.
There are 46 species of partridge spread across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. One of those inspired the lyric in the famous Christmas carol, but it surely wasn’t our ruffed grouse, which is found exclusively in North American. Probably several partridge species inspired the verse, since the song evolved from folk songs popular in both France and England, and two or three species of partridge in those countries were renowned for hanging out in fruit trees. The English version of The Twelve Days of Christmas emerged in its present form around 1780.
Grouse are distinguished by feathered nostrils and feathers around the toes, both adaptations that help in cold and snow. The ruffed grouse even grows scales on its toes in winter that function as snowshoes. While most galliformes have spurs on the foot, grouse don’t. Otherwise, there is little difference between Old World partridges and New World grouse, and using the names interchangeably is common on both continents.
Our familiar partridge — the ruffed grouse — is the most common and widespread grouse in North America. It inhabits at least 38 states and every Canadian province. It is the state bird of Pennsylvania. It is particularly prized as a game bird and it can withstand considerable hunting pressure as long as its habitat remains intact. Few ruffed grouse die of old age. They’re a favorite food of hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes. In winter, grouse can bury themselves in snow, but most predators have figured out this hiding place. Since hens can lay up to 14 eggs, the population rebounds quickly.
Mainers are accustomed to gray-colored grouse, but the ruffed grouse is reddish across its southern range. The color difference mirrors the change from coniferous forests in the north to the pure hardwood forest south of New England, allowing the bird to match the hue of the woodland background. The pattern of light and dark feathers further breaks up the bird’s silhouette, aiding concealment.
During courtship, male grouse establish a favored spot called a lek. From this lek they engage in mating displays to attract females. These displays often involve dancing and fancy wing movements, but the ruffed grouse is the only grouse that drums. It rapidly beats its wings in front of its body, cupping the air in a way that generates a booming sound. Usually, the male will drum from the trunk of a fallen tree, and when a female approaches, he will strut along the log and fan his tail in courtship.
In Maine, April and May are the mating season and that’s when most drumming is heard. However, the males guard their territories year-round and will drum occasionally in every season to discourage rivals. Generally, males choose their drumming log some time in their second year and will spend the rest of their lives within 300 hundred yards of it.
Ironically, now is when you might actually find a ruffed grouse in a pear tree. In early spring, emerging vegetation makes up the bulk of the bird’s diet. As insects and berries become available, the grouse switches to these nutritious options. In winter, it is much more common to see a ruffed grouse up in a tree where they are feeding on buds, catkins and lingering fruit. Birches and aspens are favored, but I have spotted grouse in ornamental fruit trees, perchance in a pear tree. Technically, it may not be a partridge up there, but it’s close enough.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.