Partridge on the prairie

Hungarian partridge have been a part of the North Dakota outdoors for so long that it seems they have always been here. They haven’t.

Like the ring-necked pheasant, Hungarian partridge were introduced into the state. Hunters were eager for another covey bird to hunt other than grouse and the State Game and Fish Department agreed. About 100 pairs of “huns” were purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1923. The following year the offspring began to be released into the wild. Between 1924 and 1934 more than 7,500 huns had been released into various counties in the state. They’ve been here ever since.

The stocking of huns closely followed reports of the sporty game birds taking a liking to certain areas of northwest North Dakota. Suspicion was that the northwest huns came out of Alberta or Saskatchewan, two Canadian provinces that were known to have good populations of the birds.

Today, huns are found throughout North Dakota. They’ve had their ups and downs. The state’s huns were particularly hard hit during the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“When you have a wet spring they don’t seem to do very well,” said Stan Kohn, upland game biologist for NDG&F. “Back in the ’80s we had a real healthy hun population and people loved to hunt them. When it really got dry in the ’90s their numbers really crashed and just never have come back to the level we’d really like to see.”

Like grouse and pheasants, huns need agreeable weather during the critical nesting and brood rearing period. Nests can contain up to 20 eggs.

“They are mega-layers, up to 16, 18, 20 eggs in a batch. Under good conditions they’ll all hatch. You can see pretty good survival to the flight stage and beyond,” noted Kohn. “Both parents are involved in the raising of the birds, so I suspect that’s why they do quite well on the recruitment phase.”

Young chicks feed exclusively on bugs for their first two weeks, then begin to add seeds to their diet. Rain, cold, farm machinery, pesticides and predators all can take a toll on their survival rate. Favorable habitat is critical too.

“As the habitat goes, so goes their density,” said Kohn. “Winter can be a limiting factor but habitat has got to be the big one. That’s probably why we’ve not seen the numbers we’ve had in the past.”

It won’t be long before partridge begin to pair up in preparation for the nesting season. They are the earliest nesters of the state’s upland game birds, often doing so by mid-March. Coveys of birds that made it through the winter, an adult pair and their offspring from the previous year, break apart to find mates for the nesting season.

“You get all kinds of combinations going on out there,” explained Kohn when asked about genetic diversity. “It doesn’t seem like it causes any great difficulties. I suspect it has to do with intermingling of different broods. The coveys you see now should be breaking up shortly.”

While North Dakota’s partridge are called Hungarian partridge, or simply huns, they are also known as gray partridge.

“Huns works for me,” said Kohn. “Everyone knows what you are talking about. They are a bird of the edge, where treebelts or shrubby areas come in contact with cropland or grassland.”

Traditionally, Ward County has reported some of the highest harvests of huns in the state. The birds are often found in the same general areas year after year, unless the habitat undergoes a transformation.

“They don’t have a very large home range,” stated Kohn. “If everything is clicking for them they’ll probably stay within a couple of sections. You’ll probably see them in the same areas in the spring, fall and winter.”