If you’re from Maine–and you’re an upland or small game hunter–the odds are pretty good you’ve been partridge hunting.  Which is, to say, you’ve been ruffed grouse hunting.  Confused? Don’t be.  It’s all about where you’re from, and who you talk to.  I discussed the topic with Kelsey Sullivan who is a Waterfowl and Upland Game Bird Biologist for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

(photo: audobon.org)

Considering not all of our readers are from Maine, I should probably take a step back and explain a bit.  There is an important bit of geographic terminology–actually there’s quite a lot–here in Maine.  First thing’s first: if you’re not from Maine, you’re “from away”.  Now, if you’re from New England, you already know that we Northern folks have our own way of speaking.  If you’re not from the beautiful (and historic) chunk of the Northeast that we call home (or you’ve never seen a Bruins/Red Sox game on TV) this may be news to you.  No worries! I can help you [try to] make sense of our madness.  The real point being: there are certain things you can expect to hear when you visit the Northlands (or tune into the Northland Chronicles Podcast).  Expect to hear things such as “partridge” when you are, for all intents and purposes, actually looking for ruffed grouse.

First thing’s first: if you’re not from Maine, you’re “from away”.

Does Maine actually have a population of partridge? No.  It’s simply what we call the ruffed grouse.  Why do we call them partridge if they aren’t actually partridge?  That’s where things get a little less clear than the “from away” definition I mentioned earlier.  According to most sources it’s simply a trickle-down effect from our roots as colonists.  Folks migrating here from Europe would have seen ruffed grouse–in large numbers no doubt–and likely called them partridge because of the Old World having held actual partridge.  A bird is a bird, right?  Well, no, it isn’t…but let’s just leave it at that.

I’ve often wondered if it drives Maine’s wildlife biologists crazy to hear almost every Mainer calling ruffed grouse by an incorrect name.  So I reached out to Maine IF&W to get their perspective.  I was very quickly put in touch with Mr. Kelsey Sullivan who, as I mentioned earlier, is a Waterfowl and Upland Game Bird Biologist.  Kelsey was incredibly easy to talk to, and he was happy to discuss the topic of partridge with me.

Q&A with Mr. Kelsey Sullivan from Maine IF&W

  • Northland Chronicles: I began by asking Kelsey Sullivan, Wildlife Biologist, about the history of ruffed grouse here in Maine, and New England in general.  I asked about historical seasons, bag limits, and how the ruffed grouse was viewed as a species and as a game bird.
  • Mr. Kelsey Sullivan: The first law to regulate grouse harvest was in 1858, setting a season from August 1 to February 28. This was in place until 1882 when the season was shortened to September 2 to November 30.  Trapping, netting, and snaring grouse was also eliminated then. In 1899 market hunting for grouse was eliminated in response to much lower numbers of grouse across the state. In 1901 we had our first bag limit, at 15 per day followed by a reduction to 5 per day in 1911. 1929 was the first season with a 4 bird daily bag and it has remained that since.  Season length from 1900 to the 1930’s varied between 6 and 10 weeks and from 1939-1979 the season ran from October 1 to November 15. In 1982 the season ran October 1 to December 31 and in the 80’s the season was reduced to end November 30 and December 10.  We went back to December 31st starting in 1999.
  • Northland Chronicles: I had to address the elephant in the room: the fact that the ruffed grouse is not actually a partridge at all.  I asked Kelsey for perspective on this misnomer, and I offered my opinion that early settlers of the area would have simply called any local game bird a partridge, due to our Old World roots where many species/subspecies of partridge indeed did exist.
  • Mr. Kelsey Sullivan: I think you’re spot on in regards to the convention of calling ruffed grouse “partridge” is from our old world ties.  Until their phylogeny was truly explored, early settlers would have used terms they were familiar with to describe the new world species they encountered.  It just stuck, even after their true family tree was characterized.  They got the family right though. Interestingly, in a similar vein, when the scientific name for wild turkey was established, folks back then used a scientific name that referred back to what they were familiar with in the old world, Wild Turkey is Meleagris gallopavo silvestris – meaning Meleagris – pea fowl, gallopavo – peafowl, silvestris – forest or Guinea fowl/peafowl like forest bird.
  • Northland Chronicles: Thinking back over last year’s wild turkey season, I recall hearing more ruffed grouse drumming than I can ever remember experiencing before.  The telltale thwumping that sounds like an old tractor slowly starting was so prevalent that it nearly had me and hunting buddies convinced that was a diesel generator being worked on nearby!  I asked Kelsey what the State’s perspective was on ruffed grouse numbers, and if there was truly an uptick in population or perhaps I just happened to hunt a few golden spots this year where birds happened to be.
  • Mr. Kelsey Sullivan:  The trend over the last couple decades has seen highs and lows for sure, with the most recent being a high, as you observed this past fall. We use the moose hunter survey to measure trends in grouse numbers, where moose hunters report the number of grouse they see or harvest during their moose hunt. In 2005 we saw a significant dip in numbers to the point of folks asking the Department to shorten the season.  At that time, the person in my position did not see a need to do so, affirming that it was a dip in a natural cycle of grouse numbers. The trend was positive following 2005 and we had good numbers in 2009 and 2010, followed by a dip, an uptick, another dip, to an increase starting last year into this past season (still waiting on 2018 numbers). We started some drumming surveys in 2014 and they show a similar pattern to the moose hunter survey, with a dip in 2016, with this past May showing higher numbers of drumming grouse on our survey routes.

Below is a graph provided by Mr. Kelsey Sullivan showing ruffed grouse population 

  • Northland Chronicles: When asked about influences on the grouse population in Maine, and what factors play a role there, Kelsey went on to say this.
  • Mr. Kelsey Sullivan: I think the population cycling we see here in Maine is related to the predator populations.  Years of abundant grouse support [larger] predator populations. As the grouse resource is abundant birds are more readily encountered.  As the grouse numbers dip, they are sparse across the landscape, and are encountered much less.  Predators switch prey in these leaner times and grouse are able to repopulate until abundant again and predators responded by taking them more.  In regards to weather, I think to have a significant affect, there would need to be a prolonged period of wet and cold during the nesting/brood rearing stage. We haven’t seen that in a few years and that may be contributing to the increasing trend for grouse.

It was great to have the opportunity to speak directly with Maine’s Wildlife Biologist on the topic of ruffed grouse (aka Partridge) and I think a great takeaway is an easier feeling about hearing the misnomer itself.  Partridge.  Ruffed grouse.  The King of the Woods.  Whatever it is you decide to call this magical bird, we hope you’ve enjoyed reading what Kelsey Sullivan had to say about the species.

Be sure to watch for the Northland Chronicles Podcast episode featuring Mr. Kelsey Sullivan where we’ll take an even deeper dive into all things ornithological within the beautiful Northlands.