Dear Readers, on Christmas Eve what bird could be more appropriate for my Red List piece than the Grey Partridge? It looks like such a chubby, demure bird as it goes about its business, which is mostly collecting innumerable insects from the stubbly fields of the UK and right across Europe and Asia. It is unlikely to be found in a pear tree, but it has somehow become synonymous with winter, maybe because it’s more visible at this time of year, especially in snowy conditions when its beautiful mottled plumage is not such good camouflage.
At this point I hardly need to tell you what has caused the decline of this bird in the UK, which amounts to about 85% in the past twenty-five years. Insecticides have reduced the insect numbers upon which the bird depends to raise its young, who need a huge quantity of high protein food in order to grow and become independent as quickly as possible – in Red List 2022, Jake Fiennes, who wrote the article on this species, estimates that each chick needs about 2000 insects per day. As the brood size can be up to 20 chicks, that’s a lot of insects, but clearly no more than the land used to support when a shoot in 1887 in Hampshire killed over 4000 grey partridges in four days. There used to be millions of grey partridges, but today the numbers are estimated at about 75,000.
In Red Sixty Seven (the precursor to this year’s ‘Into The Red’ and also published by the British Trust for Ornithology) Mark Cocker writes most eloquently about what the call of the grey partridge means to him. First, have a listen to the call below (recorded by Simon Elliott in North Yorkshire)
‘Partridge calls were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. It is a bird vocalisation like no other, except perhaps that other instructive casualty of agricultural change, the Corncrake. It is minimal, mechanical, un-avian. It has a creaking quality said to resemble the sound of an old gate swinging on rusty hinges, with emphasis on the opening portion followed by a long trailing slur: “Ké-e-e-e-e-e-e-r, Ké-e-e-e-e-e-e-r, Ké-e-e-e-e-e-e-r”. Over and over.
No transcription, however, can give a sense of its wonderfully bowed, echoic, spartan, pleading, memory-enriched quality, nor of the power of the sound as night falls on those late-winter hills, to merge with that light and that air to awaken a synaesthetic emotional effect. It is as if the dusk itself has found voice. It seemed to me then like a bigger door, a larger opening, a newer life were all being prised open by the bird’s yearning note. If I hear one now, my heart aches with the joy of it. And the sad remembrance‘.
For me, this conjures up a picture of that bleak landscape, low clouds over the ploughed fields, and a bevy of small round birds making their way across the ground. Then one of them raises their head, and this extraordinary sound comes forth. Let’s hope that we are all lucky enough to hear them as they return to a healthy population once again.