Hurrah for the Humble Hun
by Ben Long
There is an idea among birders of a “spark bird,” that is the species of bird that sparked a person’s greater interest in birds and, thus, the natural world. For me, the spark bird was a humble little buff-colored, pear-shaped partridge that we called a “hun,” but is more properly the Gray Partridge.
When I was a kid, we had a rough patch of yard that Dad mowed once a year “whether it needed it or not.” I was maybe 9 when I walked through that long grass and a little partridge exploded underfoot. I nearly stepped on a tiny cluster of a dozen olive-sized and olive-colored eggs in a shallow ground nest.
For the next several weeks I would sneak close and watch that mother bird as she incubated her clutch. Her patience and her camouflage were nearly perfect as I watched from inches away. One day she was not there, leaving me only one dud egg, which I added to my collection of feathers, shed snake skins and gopher tails.
Gray Partridge are commonly called Hungarian partridge. They are not native to North America but are not originally confined to Hungary either. In fact, they are widely distributed across Western Europe to Mongolia and China. Like Ring-necked Pheasants and Chukar, they were introduced to North America to give hunters something novel to pursue. As America plowed under its native grasslands, these birds filled the niches where our native prairie grouse could no longer survive.
Gray Partridge thrive alongside modern agriculture, hunkering in stubble fields in the winter eating waste grain, nesting in hay fields or pastures, feeding on insects in the summer. They are hardy, tasty and willing fliers, making them popular with hunters and wildlife management agencies wanting to sell hunting licenses. In Montana, hunters today kill around 50,000 of them annually which seems a lot until you consider in the 1960s hunters shot about twice that many. Hunters bag some 650,000 annually nationwide.
Fecundity is their great strength. Like my backyard brood hen, Gray Partridge typically have enormous clutches of 15-20. Some 75 percent of those chicks are doomed to die their first year anyway from bad weather, starvation or predators, so they bounce back after hunting season. The name “Gray” Partridge sells these handsome birds short, as they are a pretty tan and brown with males (and some females) having a distinct horseshoe-shaped patch of chestnut on their breast. Their tails are short and rusty brown. The birds are about a foot long and a wingspan perhaps two feet. A big one might weigh a pound with a full crop and a few birdshot.
Gray Partridge were first introduced into the United States in the 1700s. They were probably first released in Montana around the 1920s. One early specimen from around Kalispell is noted in 1939. If you’re not a bird hunter but wish to see a Gray Partridge, drive farm roads after a light snow. You’ll see coveys of 10-20 in stubble fields and hunched in windrows. They are often seen pecking gravel for grit on country roads.
Sometimes in deeper, softer snow the birds will bury themselves in the snow for insulation against the cold and wind. I have stumbled into these subnivean coveys while cross-country skiing and had them explode suddenly all around me, seeming to materialize noisily out of a slope of untouched, powder snow.
Here’s a fun fact. The Latin name for the Gray Partridge is Perdix perdix. This comes from the Greek word for partridge. Linguists believe the word is onomatopoeia, imitating the sound of the birds flushing.
Beyond my own nostalgia, the sources for this article are Birds of Montana (Jeffery S. Marks et. al) and the Audubon Society’s Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John K. Terres.