MAVES is always requesting that you keep your eyes peeled for flora and fauna in the area, so how about a seasonal bird? Grey Partridge records are a little scant of late, so any sightings would be more than welcome.
Many of us, whilst preparing for the season’s festivities, find ourselves humming such tunes as the Twelve Days of Christmas, and desperately attempting to recall exactly how many lords are ‘a-leaping’ and geese ‘a-laying’. On the other hand, very little thought is given to the partridge that is for-ever in the pear tree – we can all recall that line with ease.
The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in England in 1780, though there is some dispute as to whether its origin is within France or England. It may be that the humble partridge holds the key to this puzzle.
Our native partridge, the grey partridge, is of somewhat rotund form, with an orange head, green bill, grey legs and a greyish body. One hundred years ago, this game bird was positively thriving despite an estimated two million unfortunate individuals being shot each year. This may be partly attributed to the fact that the clutch size is one of the largest of any living bird, with between 13 and 16 eggs being routinely laid. These are deposited in a shallow scrape lined with grass and leaves in a safe spot protected by a hedgerow or tussocky vegetation. Sadly, numbers have declined due to the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, which have caused invertebrate and weed populations to plummet. Growing chicks require an endless supply of invertebrates and busy partridge adults (not to mention turtle doves, too) rely on numerous seeds for sustenance.
The red-legged partridge is the French equivalent, differing in its slightly bigger size, its white cheeks and throat bordered by a black band, a red bill, and, of course, its bright red legs. It has similar habitat requirements, though it is far more skittish, readily perching on fences and small trees when disturbed. Our native partridge likes to keep both feet firmly on the ground, and when forced into the air by men with guns and other predators, it merely settles back onto terra firma a few fields away.
Considering the fact that the introduced red-legged partridge did not become widespread until the nineteenth century, it is most unlikely that any partridge would have been spotted in a pear tree within our soggy kingdom. Yet that sighting would have been perfectly feasible in France – especially given the abundance of pear trees!