Sunny, unseasonably warm, golden October days with temperatures in the 70s during partridge season are made to measure for a walk in the woods. Wandering two-tracks and snowmobile trails, I shoot a 16-gauge Remington Wingmaster that I inherited from my Dad, who shotta lotta partridge and woodcock with it and taught me to draw a bead on a bird, aiming just above the head so you don't damage any of the breast meat with BBs.
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) or partridge is called a "grinch" in rural Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia where they hunt them as passionately as we do here. Minnesota claims to have the best grouse hunting in the country, with hunters claiming 40 flushes a day compared to Michigan where we're pumped to flush 10 birds a day. Michigan ranks in the top three in total harvest, usually vying with Minnesota and Wisconsin for the No. 1 spot, according to Dan Dessecker, senior biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, ruffedgrousesociety.org. For some of the finest partridge photos you've ever seen, visit Tim Flanigan's website, NatureExposure.com.
Pennsylvania is the only state smart enough to make it their state bird, and I for one think it is a much more appropriate state bird for Michigan than the robin. At least they're non-migratory and stick around year-round.
"Partridge are the middle branch of the family tree, between the larger pheasants and the smaller quails," said Bob White, WW&W partridge and quail correspondent. "Other species include chukar and ptarmigan."
Partridge are omnivores and forage on the ground and in trees, eating mostly berries, buds, clover, grass, chokecherries, apples, seeds, insects and worms. Although I have never seen the proverbial partridge in a pear tree, I have seen one in a bare tree, which makes them a pretty easy target. A bird on the wing has nothing to fear from my predations. If you've hunted them, you know a flushed bird flies fast, up to 40 mph, but doesn't fly very far and you can often watch them land a short distance away. Let them settle down a few minutes and sneak right back up on them.
The understory is still thick and leafy, offering the kinda cover that makes partridge and woodcock pretty much invisible. They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, especially when the bush is so brushy, it's hard to get a clear shot. Partridge are masters of camouflage, their spectral earthtone brown, tan and grey colors perfectly matched to their habitat.
Partridge populations run in a boom and bust cycle every ten years. Drumming counts indicate the U.P's partridge population could be emerging from its traditional cyclical slump. After the next peak, partridge numbers will decline, then rise again as they do every decade.
Perhaps you've heard of the rock band Counting Crows? Counting partridge isn't like that, although they are world-class drummers. To find and count them, Michigan DNRE biologists and volunteers conduct spring mating season drumming surveys where they troll the backroads, stopping for timed intervals to count the drums.
Yooper partridge prefer "paper woods" aspen (popple) that provides protection from avian predators, owls and goshawks, and food in the form of aspen flower buds. They enjoy perching on the bare branches safe from ground predators. Females are ground nesters, typically laying 6-8 eggs. Since grouse spend most of their time on the ground, they are fairly easy prey and a favorite food of coyotes, raccoons, fox, skunks, weasels, mink and fishers.
"I guess you could say that partridge like nice aspen," said WW&W wildlife correspondent Paris Hiltunen. "It's also habitat for the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) that hangs out in the same neck of the woods. They both have impressive, elaborate courtship displays; if you think boy partridge like to drum up a storm and fan their tails to show off for the girl birds, you oughta see what woodcocks do for their girlfriends."
As an interesting contradictory sidebar, in Finnish and Lapland culture and folklore, the Willow Grouse (Lagopus lagopus), Willow Ptarmigan in North America, is considered the "bird of God" and represents purity, often being associated with females. Fundamentalist parents would hang the legs and wings of a white grouse over a baby girl's bed to make sure she grew up virginal and virtuous, an oddly repressive imposition since grouse mate with more than one partner in real life.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Hiltunen added.
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at firstname.lastname@example.org.