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Partridge Redux

Neither the most dedicated nimrod nor the most enthusiastic retriever ought to get too nostalgic for the glory days of the Hungarian partridge in North Dakota. In the early 1960s hunters were bagging near a half million a year, but rarely did they go looking for them; Hungarian partridge were picked up in the course of a hunt for pheasant or grouse.

As I have recounted, establishment of Hungarian or gray partridges in the state resulted from, first, a fear that native gamebirds (sharptail grouse and prairie chickens) were disappearing with changes in the land; and second, from the cooperative efforts of game and fish commissioners and local citizens to import and release birds from Czechoslovakia during the 1920s. Before end of that decade they had proof of concept; Huns were a successful experiment.

Fast forward again to the 1960s and we see the importance of cyclical conditions, both environmental and political, in wildlife enterprises. Partridge like grassland nesting areas adjacent to small-grain fields, plus a little brushy cover nearby. The continuing predominance of wheat culture in the 1950s, along with the institution of the Soil Bank program for regrassing acreage, were good for partridge. So was the drought of the Filthy Fifties. Huns live well during drought, especially if there also are grasshopper outbreaks (which there were) to feed fledglings.

Small grain culture, drought, grasshoppers, and regrassing — the Conservation Reserve Program — were facts of life again in the 1980s, resulting in a partridge redux. Thus when I arrived in North Dakota at the commencement of the 1990s, I found a state of Peak Partridge. Which has been declining pretty much ever since in the presence of a more humid climatic regime and the expansion of row-crop agriculture.

The partridge boosters of the 1920s would be disappointed with the state of the bird in the twenty-first century; they had high hopes. Chapters of the Izaak Walton League took the lead for local efforts to establish Huns once their suitability seemed proven. League members paid express charges for delivering birds. In 1929 the Mandan chapter even offered a reward of $25 for parties providing information on anyone who had shot one of their partridges! Clubs in New England, Hope, Mott, and Cooperstown also played prominent roles.

In 1930 the state brought in another 500 pairs of partridges from Czechoslovakia, birds the local clubs took charge of. Then another 750 pairs in 1931. 1500 pairs the next year. By this time methods of care were refined a bit. Local parties preparing to receive birds constructed large wire pens to hold and feed them in late winter. It was a good idea to do this near farm poultry pens. Then, on release, the Huns would scratch and feed with the chickens until it was time to pair off and nest.

The first open hunting season for partridge in North Dakota of which I have record was in 1934, with hunting permitted in ten west-central counties.

The lead article in the most recent issue of North Dakota Outdoors is one by Ron Wilson, who reviews the positive production of all upland gamebirds, including partridge, this year. Their numbers appear to be back to 1991 levels — but I suspect this is just a passing phenomenon, not a long-term prospect. Could there be a comeback that would fulfill the hopes of the partridge pioneers?

It seems unlikely, but in matters of environmental history, “never” is always a bad word choice. We lack the small grain-culture and grass cover that would favor a long-term resurgence, and we keep bulldozing shelterbelts. It is not impossible that a future government might return to regrassing programs, and new crops might emerge to provide feed; partridge like canola seed, for instance. In the meantime, I’m working on my skills of pheasant cookery.

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