The North Woods bird is the ruffed grouse.
Although the ruffed grouse and the gray partridge both are “chicken-like” birds — gallinaceous, in the scientific literature — they are not closely related.
The ruffed grouse is a North American bird; it was unknown to the English carolers who established the connection between the gray partridge and the winter holiday.
There’s speculation the gray partridge may be a kind of hidden religious symbol. More likely, though, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a counting rhyme, meant to teach numbers rather than supernatural truth.
In any case, the partridge in a pear tree is an enduring Christmas tradition.
But that is not the whole reason the partridge is the Christmas bird, at least for me.
For me, the partridge evokes a special Christmas memory.
My father always made a gift of grain to the partridges. For many Christmases in a row, this involved gathering us children early Christmas morning, taking a bucket to the granary and walking — we children were expected to help carry the bucket — just far enough up the road that the birds felt secure.
There we would dump the grain and retreat to the house to watch as the partridges came to accept their present.
This wasn’t too early in the morning, of course. We’d been to midnight Mass the night before, and we had to get the cattle taken care of before we fed the partridges.
No doubt this little ritual helped spark my interest in birds. I have plenty of other examples of my parents encouraging this interest, which has filled so much of my time and brought so much joy for so many years.
The idea of feeding the partridges gained more significance for me as I grew up.
Hitching a ride
Like all of us children of immigrants, the partridge arrived as a stranger in North America. It is a native of Eastern Europe. It probably reached Friesland, my father’s ancestral home, my ancestral country, very early. The Friesians, a trading people of Anglo-Saxon stock, may have carried the birds to England. By the Middle Ages, partridges were so well established there that they became a part of British folklore and holiday traditions.
Perhaps more likely, partridges were taken to England by people — these would have been privileged people — who wanted another game bird for their hunts.
That is how the gray partridge reached North America.
The first arrived by 1800, but the birds didn’t become established until the early years of the 20th century, when they were introduced in the western Canadian province of Alberta. There they found amenable habitat — open space, plenty of grain and relatively open winters. And from there they spread. Probably, the Alberta introductions eventually spread through Saskatchewan and northern Montana into northwestern North Dakota.
In the early 1920s, partridges showed up in the northwestern corner of the state, including Mountrail County, where my family had fetched up, too.
These early birds arrived about the same time that state game managers began introducing birds: 50 pair in 1915 and 50 more in 1923. Then the pace picked up. By 1934, 7,500 birds had been imported and released in the state. The birds came from what was then called Czechoslovakia — home country of a substantial colony of settlers in Mountrail County.
Bohemians, they called themselves.
Gray, not ‘Hun’
All of us called the partridges “Huns,” and for decades, bird books accepted “Hungarian partridge” as a valid common name for the species. A wave of internationalism swept the ornithological community toward the end of the 20th century, and many country names were replaced with descriptive ones instead.
Hence, we know the “Hun” as gray partridge.
It is an apt name. The bird is gray, overall, with patches of dark reddish brown. These occur on the back and in a horseshoe-shaped patch on the breast of male birds. The partridge’s face is a light orange color.
This color combination is protective; partridges are hard to see when they’re settled close to the ground — which is exactly where they prefer to be. They flush dramatically, with a stirring noise. Flight is rapid but not prolonged. A flushed partridge is generally eager to go to ground.
Partridges are hardy birds, and they are well established in the Red River Valley. My sense is that numbers are decreasing, however, as the landscape grows balder under pressure from federal farm policies that drive more and more acres into cropland, leaving less and less cover for fewer and fewer partridges.