December 23, 2013 — Connecticut residents planning to give their true love a partridge in a pear tree on the first day of Christmas this year are likely to be disappointed.
Partridges have become so rare in Connecticut over the last two decades that it might be easier to find two French hens or three Turtle Doves than a partridge – the beautiful and thrilling game bird more commonly known here as the Ruffed Grouse.
The reason for the scarcity can be found in the woods themselves.
The partridge or Ruffed Grouse is a bird of the young forest, of thickets and young trees that first grow when a meadow or farm is abandoned. Connecticut’s forests are now too old for Ruffed Grouse and the dozen or so other birds that require young woods for nesting.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimates that while 60 percent of the state is covered by forest, only five percent of that is the early-stage forest that grouse require.
The situation is made worse by deer, which in some places have devoured much of the forest understory, and by suburban development, which has divided important habitats into unsustainable fragments, and by other human behaviors that have allowed predators like raccoons to thrive.
Although the partridge’s range extends far beyond Connecticut and the bird is doing well across North America, its statewide decline is an indication that our ecosystems are not as diverse as they could be. Once nearly entirely forested, then nearly entirely pastures in colonial times, the state has reverted back to forestland. Other birds that also prefer thickets and young forests, such as Eastern Towhee, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler, have also become relatively rare in Connecticut.
“Our forests are aging and our landscape less diverse, which means that many of Connecticut’s most beautiful birds, such as Ruffed Grouse, are disappearing,” said Alex Brash, president of Connecticut Audubon Society. “Across the state we urge land owners to undertake better conservation planning and forestry management in order to bring back not only our partridges for Christmas, but a greater variety of songbirds.”
One of the best gauges of how far Ruffed Grouse numbers have declined is the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. An analysis by the Connecticut Ornithological Association shows that during the 1970s, Connecticut Christmas Bird Counts averaged 160 grouse per year. That rose to 176 during the 1980s, with a high of 250 in 1982-83.
But by the 1997-98 count the army of birders who fanned out across Connecticut saw 43 Ruffed Grouse. And in 2009-10 Christmas Bird Count, the number of Ruffed Grouse seen statewide was just one (in Litchfield County).
In light of this, Connecticut Audubon Society has made a major effort to manage its sanctuaries to encourage a greater diversity of birds.
“We’re actively managing several of our sanctuaries with a goal of bringing back a whole suite of birds that nest only in young forest,” said Milan Bull, Connecticut Audubon’s senior director of science and conservation.
Ruffed Grouse nest, for example, on Connecticut Audubon Society’s 700-acre Croft preserve in Goshen, helped by a conservation management plan that serves as a science-based blueprint for maintaining and improving the preserve’s habitat. Now, more than 10 percent of the preserve is being managed to maintain the kind of early-successional habitat that Ruffed Grouse require.
“When partridges started to disappear, Connecticut’s woods lost something special,” Brash said. “Two of the most thrilling experiences in nature are to walk through the woods and see a grouse drumming its wings while courting, or to have one flush from its hiding spot at your feet. It’ll scare the pants off you.
“We hope landowners and conservation organizations throughout Connecticut make a New Year’s resolution to work to bring them and other songbirds back, so we can once again find partridges and certain warblers among the gray birch and red maples – and maybe even in a pear tree.”