Partridge, Sichuan Hill

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Partridge, Sichuan hill

Arborophila rufipectus

phylum: Chordata

class: Aves

order: Galliformes

family: Phasianidae

status: Endangered, IUCN

range: China

Description and biology

The Sichuan hill partridge, or Sichuan partridge, is very rare and shy of humans. Little was known about the species until studies were initiated in the 1990s. This partridge is about 11 inches (28 centimeters) long. It is grayish-brown in color, with white markings on its forehead, a brown crown, distinctive markings around its eyes, and a black-streaked white throat. Males and females are similar in appearance except that the female coloring is not as bright.

When searching for food, the Sichuan hill partridge generally forages in the growth and litter (dead leaves and twigs) of a forest floor. The species is territorial. Sichuan hill partridge male-female pairs will often send out territorial calls together. These are loud, repetitious whistles. Wildlife biologists (people who study living organisms) have begun to study the behavior of the species, but little information is currently available about breeding or other social behavior.

Habitat and current distribution

The Sichuan hill partridge is found in subtropical broadleaf forests (warm forest environments in which some of the trees have leaves rather than needles) at elevations of 3,600 to 7,300 feet (1,100 to 2,250 meters). The species is endemic to (is native to and occurs only in) China. In 1997, Sichuan hill partridge populations were found in six forest areas in Ebian, Leibo and Mabian counties within the Daliang Shan mountains of south central Sichuan province, and in Pingshan, Suijiang and Yongshan counties within the Wumeng Shan mountains of northeastern Yunnan. The total population of the species has been estimated to be between 860 and 1,722 birds.

History and conservation measures

The primary threat to the Sichuan hill partridge is logging, which has severely reduced its habitat. The broadleaf forests in China it requires for survival have been rapidly disappearing for years. By the early 1990s, all of the remaining broadleaf forests inhabited by the species were scheduled to be logged. If not for the intervention of conservationists (people who work to protect and preserve the natural world), the habitat would have been wiped out entirely. There were other threats to the partridge as well. Humans were gathering bamboo shoots, and livestock was grazing in the remaining forest areas, greatly disturbing the birds' normal behavior patterns. Since little was known about the species' habitat requirements, many predicted that the partridge would be extinct by 2030.

Fortunately, in the mid-1990s, several major projects were undertaken by a variety of Chinese and international conservation groups in an effort to understand and protect the Sichuan hill partridge. The studies brought in vital information about the species' distribution, population density, and habitat requirements. They revealed that altering forestry practices could benefit the partridge, especially if strips of primary forest were left along ridge tops and broadleaf trees were replanted where they had been cleared. Extensive work is continuing, because scientists have determined that the Sichuan hill partridge serves as an excellent indicator of the ecological health of the whole region. If the species is declining, it is a clear signal of major problems throughout the ecosystem (the ecological community, including plants, animals, and microorganisms, considered together with their environment).

As it became apparent that the Sichuan hill partridge population was very low and fragmented, conservation groups put pressure on the Chinese government to alter its logging and forest management practices. Soon the Sichuan hill partridge became a protected species within China. Other circumstances caused the Chinese government to rethink its logging practices. In 1998, catastrophic (very destructive) flooding of the Yangtze River was linked to the logging of the slopes around it. At the same time, there were concerns about the effects that deforestation (removing all trees) was having on the Three Gorges Dam, a huge new dam on the river. In August 1998, the Chinese government enacted a ban on logging in the area, which happened to be part of the partridge's range. Since that time, local people who used to be loggers in the area have been put to work replanting the forests.

In 2001, the Sichuan Forestry Department created the first protected area for the Sichuan hill partridge at Laojunshan. There, conservationists are putting new forest management practices in effect, trying to find methods that will conserve the area for the benefit of the Sichuan hill partridge as well as for other species, including humans.