Pa’tridge in a Fir Tree

With the holidays upon us, the sights and sounds of Christmas surround the Waitsburg community. From glittering street decorations to themed music taking over our favorite radio stations, the magic of December can be neither escaped or denied.

Of the many celebratory songs, I am willing to place a wager on literally everyone knowing the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. It’s a timeless standard. And, love it or hate it, it shall be heard again this year. And what do we all expect on he first of the twelve days of Christmas? You guessed it. A “partridge in a pear tree”. But have you ever wondered exactly what the phrase means, aside from the literal sense of a bird in a fruit tree? Possibly not, but being a biologist and upland bird fanatic, I had to dive in a bit deeper.

According to the reliable sources of the internet, the phrase “partridge in a pear tree” is meant to symbolize Jesus, as apparently the mother partridge is the only upland bird willing to sacrifice itself for its young.  A meaningful verse and analogy, but the phrase also begs the specifics of the partridge itself.

If you’ve read any of the myriad literature devoted to the pursuit of ruffed grouse, you likely recall them referenced as partridge, or pa’tridge, as Burton Spiller liked to say, expressing emphasis of a New England accent. But do grouse qualify as true partridge?

To be completely accurate, only a handful of upland birds native to Europe and Eurasia are actually partridge. Encyclopedia Britannica describes them as small game birds native to the Old World and of the pheasant family. References to quail and grouse of the New World are regarded as erroneous.

Two common partridges in our area of Washington are the Hungarian (Huns) or gray partridge and chukar. These two are quite distinct from one another in appearance and habitat, yet both are stunningly beautiful.

Hungarian or Gray Partridge boasting characteristic cinnamon bands. Photo from public domain.

Huns are a favorite of mine and most common among the wheat farms and foothills. Their range extends largely across the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Short grass and crop fields are prime habitat with birds seeking high ground atop a ridge spine or the head of a draw. Their explosive, chirping flush is a welcomed treat and quite startling as an ancillary find in my bird hunting endeavors. A soft gray body rises in a flurry of cinnamon head and tail fans as cream-barred wings evacuate over the nearest terrain and quickly out of shot opportunity.

Conversely, the chukar, otherwise known as the “devil bird”, boasts deep crimson legs and beak, an intriguing mask across the eyes and down the neck, and intricate barring across the flanking, beige breast feathers. Their devil reputation comes from the steep and rocky habitats in which they thrive, yet some inhabit gentler sage brush mountain tops and plateaus of Hells Canyon and the upper Columbia Basin. Their maniacal “chuk-chuk-chuk” call from the cliffs was seemingly designed to taunt the predator while slinking away, a defeated fool.

Chukar partridge identified by the crimson legs and beak, face mask, and banded flank feathers. Photo from public domain.

With our partridge properly identified, it seems only the Hun is likely to be found in a pear tree around local farmland. Of the erroneous pa’tridge, a ruffed grouse is likely to select similar habitat and food sources near or among timbered ridges and creek bottoms. But what if you vison a white Christmas among the mountaintop evergreens?

The blue grouse is our native highland cousin to the ruffed grouse, seeking evergreen timber, mountain meadows and rugged, rocky slopes over 2,000 feet in elevation. While ruffs and blues can share common habitat, the greatest difference between the two is the blue grouse behavior of seeking higher elevation as winter snows pile up. During periods of deep snow, blue grouse prefer to hang out in Douglas fir, feeding exclusively on the small needles.

Blue grouse males (below left) are a humble blue-gray in color and are larger than ruffed grouse. Males boast a nearly black tail and contrasting white neck feathers similar to the black ruff of the ruffed grouse. Females are a less conspicuous mottled brown (below right). While the ruffed grouse is known for its wary personality and dodginess, blue grouse are less likely to flush early or too far distant when approached, often jumping onto an overhead tree branch when spooked.

Male blue grouse in mating display (left). Hen blue grouse in a high-mountain meadow (right). Photos by the National Parks Service.

Regardless of their predator avoidance tactics, our native grouse species are a seemingly fit pa’tridge for the for the Twelve Days of Christmas in these parts. And, while a partridge in a pear tree sounds nice, visions of a blue pa’tridge in a fir tree, blanketed in shimmering snow crystals and contrasted against a bluebird morning sky paints a wonderful picture of a peaceful Blue Mountain Christmas. With the “partridge in a pear tree” conundrum solved, may you and your family have a Merry Christmas, or any December holiday you choose to celebrate! (Partridge optional).

Upland Pursuits: Regret, Relief and Reflection at Season’s End

Published March 20th, 2021 in the East Oregonian.

The rich aromas of a moist, finely blended pipe tobacco drifted from the crooked briarwood clenched between my teeth. Taking a slow pull, I puzzled over the two spent 20-gauge shells lying before me, signaling a close to the 2020 upland bird season. Each season brings new and unique experiences, and lessons learned, and re-learned.

Unique experiences of 2020 included a road trip to north-central Montana for sharp-tailed grouse, and making a new hunting buddy from Almira, Washington, on the basalt-channeled scablands chasing quail and pheasant. Both experiences offered complete surprise and education.

A tip from some Helena residents led me to the Conrad area of Montana, only to find it a complete bust. Having hunted sharp-tails in far eastern Montana and finding coveys thick as starlings, I was confident in my setter’s ability to find birds. Map scouting for large grasslands and sagebrush tracts had me a bit concerned, but I identified a few areas that looked good among the patchwork of cropland.

Upon arrival, I found a single tract in 50 square miles with semblance of the native prairie I sought. Over the course of a few days, my setters never once got birdy. We saw not a single game bird along farm roads or public access. Thoroughly disappointed, we packed it in early, headed for Flathead Lake, and camped in a beautiful lakeside state park for a pick-me-up.

Finn running the Rocky Mountain Front.

On the contrary, in December I met a social media acquaintance near Grand Coulee, expecting prospective covers to resemble our local bird numbers. Darren McCall and his daughter Kinzie were gracious enough to show me some of their best covers, while I ran my best dogs. Wading into the first field of the day, dappled in Great Basin wild rye and other choice grasses, a scene reminiscent of the Dakotas erupted as waves of pheasant took to wing hundreds of yards ahead of us and the dog.

Moving on to the quintessential quail cover of the scablands, every grassy pocket held pheasant, but we put up not one quail covey. The sagebrush and bunchgrasses were cloaked in ice and the landscape a glimmering prism, punctuated by the milky green of sage and chocolate basalt outcrops. Darren claimed a single rooster, and we enjoyed an exhilarating hunt behind Yuba as she taught a clinic on pinning hens.

The common lesson relearned from both Montana and Grand Coulee was that quality habitat produces birds. The Montana habitat was abhorrent, while the scablands were characterized largely by native vegetation.

Yuba pinning a hen pheasant on the channeled scablands.

Also noteworthy, the western wildfires may have kept me from the Oregon sage grouse season, but exceptional mourning dove flights on my homestead amidst the smoke were a fair consolation. Finn and Yuba hunted at peak performance, Yuba in particular. Following a second surgery in August to correct hip dysplasia, she now has no hip sockets. I feared her stamina and stability would prove a challenge over the fall, but being freed of crippling arthritis, her exuberance, determination and skill were redefined.

Yuba’s pheasant savvy comes as a result of passion and drive that have helped hone her skills over the years. I lost count of her finds this past season, and the tenacity in which she pursued downed birds was an inspiring spectacle.

Taking another pull, the sweet aroma triggered further memories. The time has past to hang up the vest, stow the side-by-side, and box the pipe for another grueling nine months of anticipation. And, as always, it was done with a pang of regret, yet a sigh of relief.

Season’s end signals a close to the crack-of-dawn, frozen finger mornings, and cutting, combing and plucking a thousand invasive weed burrs from the notoriously tangly setter coats. It also brings halt to the sight of high-tailed points beneath the golden rays of the crepuscular hours, and the rush of wings against crackling grasses and shrub limbs.

My girls and I are getting no younger. The same can be said for my upland brethren. And to me, a picture is worth 1,000 birds. It’s going to be a long wait for September. May the memories of the stellar days afield, and time spent toting the scattergun with friends and family, simply following the dogs and admiring the splendor of the uplands, see us through to the early 2021 grouse season.

An exceptional performance by Yuba landed a couple well-earned roosters in the bag.