Partridge, the Northern Apple Grower’s Nightmare
by Joseph D. Conwill of Rangeley, ME
Apple orchards suffer from a wide range of problems. The worst of all is not moose, deer, rabbits, voles, round-headed apple tree borers, sawfly, codling-moth, curculio, or scab. It is a bird, the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), known locally by the nickname partridge, which is the term I will use in this article.
So why haven’t you heard of this problem? Because partridge populations are at a low density in most places, so the damage is slight enough that most people don’t notice. But if you live on the northern edges of civilization, as many homesteaders do, you are more likely to have the birds in some numbers. Robert Frost wrote several poems about apple growing, and he referred to partridge in “Good-by and Keep Cold.” Almost any other problem can be dealt with by some combination of fencing or (hopefully organic) spray, but you are helpless against these big pests that fly in. Their range extends throughout the northern part of our continent as far west as North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Numbers vary from year to year but I nearly always have some.
Partridge eat the buds of trees in the winter, and apple buds are among their favorite foods. They eat both leaf and flower buds, but leaf buds will regenerate the same year. Flower buds will not; they require two years in formation. If you lose all your flower buds, you will have no apples. Just one partridge is easily capable of “budding” an entire small orchard over the course of the winter.
Hunting is a common remedy, and a shotgun is the usual implement. But shot can damage your orchard if sprayed through the trees, and it requires a fair degree of luck to get a partridge with a rifle (though it has on occasion been done). The season lasts all the autumn until the end of December in my state, and the limit is four birds per day. I’m not such a great shot myself, but I invite my hunting friends, who show up with or without dogs, and with varying degrees of braggadocio. Not one of them has gotten a partridge on my land. Perhaps, as they claim, they are taking plentiful numbers elsewhere, but I keep my doubts to myself.
Hunters will always tell you that partridge feed at dawn and at dusk, but in fact they feed all day long. It’s true that if you’ve found a place where they are roosting, they will feed at dawn and dusk as they leave and return to their roosts. But during the day they range afield and feed anywhere. They are active all winter, and spend their entire lives within a relatively small territory of perhaps forty to two hundred acres. In summer they roost on the ground; in warmer days of winter, in trees; and on extremely cold days, in holes they dig for themselves in the snow.
During the warm season, partridge prefer to feed on the ground, and they do not bother trees. The problem is mostly in winter when the ground is covered with snow, but here the ground is snow-covered for five full months. Their feeding begins before the snow, because apple trees hold their leaves late into the autumn, and the leaves attract partridge in large numbers when other food sources are gone. Having discovered the leaves, they soon turn their attention to the buds. They work in any weather — rain, snow, extreme cold — except that they do not like high winds.
Partridge damage is not evident from a distance, but close up you can see that the buds are missing, leaving bright yellow-green scars. After a few weeks the scars will weather, and they may be hard to distinguish from scars left where you picked apples. If the damage is very fresh, you might see flecks of debris in the snow under the tree, or perhaps some scat.
The most dramatic evidence of partridge is seeing the large birds themselves, exploding with a burst of wing noise when you flush them. But even if you don’t flush the birds, they are often around, walking on the snow nearby, or sitting in a tree in the nearby woods, checking the area for safety. When they walk on the snow, their chicken-like tracks are distinctive, though they may be less distinct (and closer together) in deep fresh powder. Their scat is a little over a quarter-inch thick, varying in color but generally light tan, often layered, and sometimes with a white cap on one end (my thanks to local wildlife expert Bill Elliott for positive identification of all the signs). Usually they are quiet, except for the explosion of wing noise when they flush, and the drumming sound they make with their wings during mating season, which carries a long ways in the woods. If alarmed when under cover, they may make a call consisting of a series of equally-spaced high-pitched peeps, surprisingly faint for such a robust bird; if alarmed in the open, they may emit a couple of chicken-like clucks if they do not flush, but both these sounds are rarely heard.
What can you do about the birds? First let me review some things which well-meaning people who don’t have the problem are always suggesting, but which don’t work, or are impractical.
• Hanging flash tape, aluminum pie tins, old CDs, etc. in the trees. Flash tape does work, but only for about two weeks. Eventually the birds get used to it. It might be useful if you have to go away on a short trip, but you need at least twenty pieces on every standard tree; it’s hard to set up your ladder in the snow; and it takes a very long time to get the job done. After four to six weeks, when it’s no longer working anyway, it will get brittle and break off in the wind in chunks, which you’ll be cleaning out of the surrounding woods all next summer. And it’s expensive.
• Bird netting. Of all the farm tools ever devised, this must be the most annoying. It catches on every small protrusion, breaks off countless buds itself, and is difficult to install. If a frame could be built to hold it up, it might be useful. But standard apple trees are twenty feet tall. Contrary to manufacturer’s claims, snow does stick to netting in icy weather. When the net crashes down it can damage your tree, and it will be very hard to disentangle the net from the wreckage. Dwarf trees would be easier to net; but unless securely fenced, your entire planting can be destroyed by a moose, and any branches below the snow cover will get torn off during spring melt.
• Foul-tasting sprays. Commercial kinds are extremely expensive, and a lot is needed. I’ve tried home brews intended to repel moose from foliage. They don’t deter partridge, probably because the surface area of a bud is tiny, and it does not retain much spray.
• A propane cannon. This might work, though it’s usually used for crows. But the noise is very annoying, and out of the question if you have neighbors within half a mile.
• Ultrasonic repellers, bird distress calls or strobe lights. Lights are designed for the dim insides of warehouses. Devices to broadcast distress calls seem not to be made for partridge, since the birds only rarely make noise. Ultrasonic repellers have a very limited range. I would need six of them to cover my orchard, and it’s a long way from the house, so I’d have to install electric service.
• Fine fishing line. Supposedly, if looped between and up and down the branches, it will deter birds. It does not; the partridge just walk around it.
So what can be done? I wrote to kindly orchardist Michael Phillips for ideas. He said that constant human presence is a reliable deterrent. I love my orchard, and it’s beautiful up there, but I can’t be there all day. How much presence is needed? By experimentation I’ve found the following:
Hourly patrols will keep partridge away. But intervals longer than an hour between visits are not effective. The birds expect to be flushed on an occasional random basis, and they will keep coming back unless surprised all the time. When they first appear, they may take a few nibbles to be sure they want the food, then they will seek cover in the perimeter woods to check for safety. After forty-five to sixty minutes, they get bold enough to come out. If you’re not there, they will eat for a longer time, and after a few days of this you may lose much of your crop. If you appear every hour, you can keep the birds away. You need to make a circuit of the entire orchard, not just a corner. Dawn-to-dusk coverage is needed, but fortunately the partridge don’t work at night! Sometimes, several weeks may go by with no activity, but they can appear at any time unexpectedly.
Such a regimen is only possible for those who do not work off the farm. Perhaps a dog or a cat might help, since partridge spend a lot of time on the ground, but winter snow coverage reaches four feet here. The internet is full of ideas on how to attract partridge, which are desirable as game birds, but it says nothing much about deterrents. The orchard perimeter can be made less attractive by thinning the forest and by removing brush to provide clear sight lines into the woods in all directions; this may reduce, but it does not eliminate the problem. If any readers have experience dealing with partridge, I’d very much like to hear about it!