I recently observed a covey of gray or Hungarian partridge out feeding in a barren field. Even at a distance, these small stocky members of the pheasant family could be easily identified by their rusty-brown color, mottled gray breast, dark “U” on the lower belly, and cinnamon colored head and throat. Gray partridge tip the scales at a pound or so.
Gray partridge seem to do best in areas where grassland is interspersed with small grain fields where they feed mainly on waste grain, weed seeds, and some leaf material and insects. They are always a treat to watch, and for me that is particularly true during the winter months. When most other animals look for shelter during the winter, partridge seem to embrace the cold and wind out in the open looking for something to eat. Apparently they are able to make it through our tough North Dakota winters in areas where cover is in short supply, roosting in small depressions in the snow covered landscape or perhaps burrowing into the snow to roost like ruffed grouse.
Although most people probably know this bird as Hungarian partridge or “Huns,” the preferred name is gray partridge. They are native to Eurasia but have been introduced as a game bird in many areas around the world, including the north central United States and adjacent Canadian Provinces.
It is interesting to note that perhaps the earliest attempt at introducing the partridge into the United States was conducted in the late 1700’s near Beverly, New Jersey by the son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin. Our partridge, however, are probably descendants of birds stocked in Alberta or Saskatchewan. They started showing up in northwestern North Dakota in the early 1920’s and by 1934 the state established its first hunting season for the species.
Although the birds form coveys during the winter, those coveys will break up next spring when the adults pair-up as the breeding season commences. Gray partridge have a high reproductive potential compared to other upland game birds. While pheasants and sharp-tail grouse may lay up to a dozen or so eggs, gray partridge are known to produce as many as 20 eggs in a nest. And although the female does all the incubating, the male does help in feeding and caring for the young. But of course we will have to wait until spring to observe that.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.