Published February 17, 2011, 12:00 AM

The plight of the Hungarian and gray partridges

When it comes to winter and wildlife, we give much time and attention to pheasants and deer. While I won’t begrudge the attention for arguably the two most popular hunted species in North Dakota, there’s a host of other critters working their way through winter with us as well.

By: Doug Leier, The Dickinson Press

When it comes to winter and wildlife, we give much time and attention to pheasants and deer. While I won’t begrudge the attention for arguably the two most popular hunted species in North Dakota, there’s a host of other critters working their way through winter with us as well.

Some, like the native sharp-tailed grouse, are designed to withstand about every trick nature can pull, from layers of pleated feathers that fight the wind, to the instinctual capacity to snuggle into the snow to beat the cold.

Hungarian or gray partridge are not quite so well equipped. While this native of Europe actually does OK if the basics of adequate habitat and food are available, life on the prairie is still somewhat precarious during winter months.

Partridge have fat reserves and dense plumage and thick foot pads that help them survive bitter temperatures. They also are known to huddle together on the ground to form tight roosting rings called rosettes, which both generate and preserve heat and up the odds for their chances of survival.

Unfortunately for pheasants, they haven’t yet taken the hint from these little birds, as they are still often seen in their sentinel-like stance even in the face of a bitter Alberta clipper.

Like native sharptails of the prairies and ruffed grouse that inhabit pockets of timber within North Dakota northern forests, Hungarian partridge will also tunnel into the snow to gain protection from wind and a buffer from the bitter cold.

While having snow on the ground means cover from the elements is always at hand, too much snow such as the past few winters can be a bad thing as it keeps partridge from getting to food. While ruffed grouse and sharptails can survive on berries, buds and seeds hanging from trees and shrubs like buffaloberries and beaked hazel, partridge are mostly ground feeders.

In winter, when food is scarce, stubble fields, roadsides and farmsteads play an important role in partridge survival. If grains, weed seeds, sprouts and grit are exposed, partridge will find them.

In late February, when spring can seem like it’s just around the corner or, alas, seemingly forever imprisoned under a foot of snow, the Hungarian partridge breeding season begins.

Partridge harvest numbers from 2010 have not yet been tallied but in the past few seasons we’ve seen a harvest of 60,000 to 100,000 birds and about 15,000 to 30,000 active hunters. Ward, Bottineau and Williams counties have been the top counties for partridge harvest the last couple of years.

Partridge are not often the primary quarry of upland game hunters, but most hunters would agree that they always appreciate seeing a covey of Huns. In recent years I’ve even talked to some hunters who have chosen not to pull the trigger if a covey flushes, as a sort of a catch-and-release gesture in hopes that a few more remnant birds will help the population bounce more quickly.

Realistically, changes in land use and weather — particularly a cool and wet late spring and early summer — play a much greater role in influencing partridge population levels.

The fact remains that pheasants and partridge are not native to North Dakota, and while partridge may have a slight edge over pheasants when it comes to winter, even tamer winters are still a tough test.

Leier is a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist. E-mail him at dleier@nd.gov.

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