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What bird is the Christmas partridge?

Ruffed grouse. Illustration by Mike Jacobs.1 / 2
Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

The ruffed grouse is an aspirational bird for me; that is, a bird I haven't seen lately but hope to see soon. The grouse is on my mind for several reasons, but mostly because it could occur on this week's Christmas Bird Count at Icelandic State Park.

The count circle encompasses an area between Cavalier and Walhalla, N.D., that has the kind of habitat ruffed grouse like, and the species is regular there — though not common, at least in my experience. The species occurs in other places in North Dakota, including the Turtle Mountains, but it is not common anywhere in the state.

Minnesota is an entirely different story. Ruffed grouse occur across woodlands in the state, except for deep, old forests. Cutover stands of popple and birch are especially attractive, and such habitats cover quite a lot of northwestern Minnesota.

So if I really wanted to see a ruffed grouse, that is where I should go, but I have a second reason to seek ruffed grouse on the North Dakota side of the Red River. That reason is named Louis Riel. Local history buffs will recognize the name, and Canadians will know quite a bit about him. A controversial figure, Riel is regarded as the founder of Manitoba, and there are monuments and place names commemorating him in Winnipeg.

There's even a Louis Riel Day—the third Monday in February—in parts of Canada in his honor.

This regard is relatively recent, however. The Canadian government long persecuted Riel, eventually executing him. He lived in exile for much of his life. Part of that he spent at a place he called Pointe-a-Michel. This is north of Neche, N.D., where the Pembina River curves tantalizingly close to the Canadian border. Riel couldn't cross legally, and he often was a lonely man. He also was a poet, and one of his best-known pieces invokes "the partridge" as a metaphor for loneliness and reunion.

The partridge he had in mind is what birding purists call the ruffed grouse, and recently, that name has become widely accepted. Not so earlier, however, and not universally true today. Partridge is a widely used common name for the ruffed grouse.

This is the third reason the ruffed grouse has crept into my consciousness this week. Although the ruffed grouse is commonly called a partridge, it is not the partridge that is the gift of the first day of Christmas in an old carol. That partridge is the gray partridge, an Old World bird that didn't become Americanized until the 1920s.

The gray partridge is another of the "chicken-like" birds, but otherwise it has little in common with the ruffed grouse. It is a grassland bird; I don't recall ever seeing one in a bush. Nor does the gray partridge exhibit the behavior most often associated with ruffed grouse, a courtship display that includes strutting and drumming. The ruffed grouse is often a solitary bird. The gray partridge is seldom seen alone. Flocks of a dozen to 20 birds are much more characteristic of the species.

In several ways, the two species may be linked. Physical characteristics are involved in the names of both species—color for the partridge and feathers for the grouse. "Ruffed" refers to feathers on the neck, which the birds raise in courtship and defense.

Like the ruffed grouse, the gray partridge is widely known by another name. The species occurs across the steppes of central and Eastern Europe, and by the Middle Ages, it had been introduced in England—for the same reason it was brought to the United States and Canada—as a game bird. This origin led to the common name "Hungarian partridge," often shortened to "Hun."

Thus, another similarity is that both these species are valued as game birds; another is that both are tasty fare.

Still another is that they are associated with the Christmas season.