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The Buzz of Partridge

The buzz of rising Hungarian partridge was a pleasant surprise as I walked with my Labrador retriever yesterday. It was a lovely covey, ten birds. Game and fish people say the numbers of Hungarian, or European gray, partridge are on the rise just now, but they have been in decline for decades, so even a full day in the field is unlikely to result in a sighting. The decline is largely the result of changing agricultural practices.

My surprise likely did not equate with that of a farmer named W. B. Rugg in Steele County in December 1932. He reported to the Hope Pioneer there were about forty strange birds, “the color of a prairie chicken but somewhat smaller in size” with “a red topknot on their head” in a field of corn stubble. The topknot reference was exaggerated, although Huns do have reddish coloration on their heads. From Mr. Rugg’s description the editor recognized the birds as Hungarian partridge, recently released in the vicinity.

By 1932, in fact, partridge were fairly well established in North Dakota as the result of assiduous efforts by the state game commission, assisted by citizens, since 1924. In fact, the introduction had been surprisingly easy.

For people had tried, without success, for generations to establish partridges in North America. A kinsman of Benjamin Franklin brought birds to New Jersey in the late 1700s, but they disappeared, as did partridge introduced in many places over the next century.

For the bird belonged, as it turned out, on the prairies, where partridge took to the combination of small-grain fields and grassland, preferably with some larger cover nearby, and — an important feature on the prairies so far as partridge were concerned — section roads with gravel on them. The roads were needed for partridge to gravel up in a land of silt and clay soils. They also were convenient for game officers and researchers doing censuses of the introduced birds. Successful introductions of partridge on the prairies commenced in Alberta in 1908.

If all this is new to you — Hungarian partridge are a European bird, a little larger than a quail, that pairs up and produces clutches of twelve or more eggs. The hatchlings stay with their parents to overwinter as coveys. The birds are winter-hardy but somewhat vulnerable to raptor predation, including by snowy owls.

In early twentieth century game and fish people were concerned about the decline of upland gamebirds. Settlement had produced a remarkable efflorescence of prairie chickens, due to the nutritional boost provided by crops planted alongside grasslands on the frontier. With more land being converted to cropland, however, the decline in nesting area was detrimental to both prairie chickens and sharptail grouse.

South Dakota, famously, pioneered the introduction of the ringneck pheasant. To the north, the early success of the partridge in Alberta and then Saskatchewan sparked hope also for its introduction in places like Montana and North Dakota.

The hope would be realized. A report from 1961 states that North Dakota had the largest population of Huns in any state, with more than 400,000 taken by hunters in a single season.

Records of first introductions in North Dakota are spotty. A report from 1941 states that North Dakota Game and Fish brought in 50 pairs in 1915, 50 in 1923, and then ratcheted up to 200 pairs in 1924.

I have newspaper reports, however, that state officials released some birds in a park near Bismarck in 1908 — whereupon a hawk immediately snatched one of them and flew off with it, and nothing more was heard of them. Nevertheless, hopes did not end there, and I’ll be back to give you the rest of the story.

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