A Springtime Thrill

If you live outside of town near grassy fields, chances are you’ve seen a winter covey of gray partridge diving into snowbanks or seeking shelter along shrubbery lines or under the boughs of evergreen trees. How do you identify a gray partridge? First off, it’s a compact, pigeon-sized bird. The most obvious marking is a dark-chestnut horseshoe marking on the abdomen of the male. On the female, this horseshoe marking is less prominent and often absent. Also notice the rusty-orange face and throat on both sexes.

Our fascination with this bird is growing along with its numbers. The gray partridge is locally known as the Hungarian partridge or Hun. Yes, it was originally imported from Hungary by way of England and is now comfortably naturalized to our environment.

The Hun is classified as an upland game bird, sharing this designation in Southwest Montana with sage and sharp-tailed grouse, blue, ruffed and spruce grouse, pheasants, wild turkeys, and Chukar partridge. All these are local year-round residents. While the Hun is a non-native, over the decades it has taken a liking to our wide-open ranges and now populates all of the northern states of the western US and the western provinces of Canada. A grassland bird, the Hun has become well established in our fields and low-density suburbs where significant areas of undisturbed grasses remain.

While Huns may be legally hunted, this little bird weighs less than a pound, so many of us are finding more enjoyment in simply watching their antics. They are especially enjoyable to watch during the winter months when they form coveys that can number 20 or more birds. In the spring, as soon as thawing exposes large patches of bare ground, the coveys begin to break up into nesting pairs. A prodigious breeder, the hen may lay several clutches of 15 eggs a year. However, less than a third will usually survive to leave the nest.

A high reproductive rate is a good survival strategy for the Hun as it is hunted by quite a number of predators. During the winter when adequate shelter is scarce, many Huns fall prey to the golden eagle and larger hawks. Being a ground nester, Huns are also susceptible to predation from foxes, coyotes, skunks, weasels, and other ground predators. During the nesting season, additional non-natives such as house cats and dogs may prey upon the chicks, and livestock may interfere with the nesting process by destroying nests and eggs.

With all these natural and unnatural predators, the average lifespan of a Hun in the wild is a little more than one year. Very few live to age three. Low-density suburban development seems to be helping to increase their numbers, as Huns are more tolerant of human development than many of their predators.

During the winter months the Hun is primarily a seed-eater, living off wheat, barley, oats and delicate green grass. You can help the Hun through these cold winter months by feeding them a nutritious blend of grains and grit on a platform near the ground, preferably tucked under the protective boughs of an evergreen or dense bushy hedge. You can also help to improve the reproductive success rate of this bird by implementing common-sense wildlife-friendly activities. During the spring and summer it would help to prevent dogs and cats from running free in nesting areas and to limit livestock access and off-road ATV activities in these areas. Since low-lying areas such as ditches are a favorite nesting area, delaying mowing in these areas until late summer is also a good wildlife friendly practice.

During the summer, Hun chicks feed on insects, especially caterpillars, beetles, bugs, ants, and aphids. Breeding is more successful when there is plenty of this food available. Adult Huns feed mainly on seeds and shoots throughout the year. They seek places where they can find lots of seed food, such as rotational set-aside, winter stubbles, harvested root crops, newly sown crops, and weeds in the crop margins.

David Mann owns Wild Birds Unlimited on West Main in Bozeman, 58 something.