Foam Lake Birding No. 24

No. 24
In previous articles, I have mentioned that some of our birds (and plants and animals for that matter) are foreign species that have been introduced. Why? There were a variety of reasons and here are four of them. One, our pioneers were homesick and wanted birds around that were familiar to them; two, some were introduced in the belief that they would control (eat) agricultural pests; three, some were pets that escaped and established themselves in the wild; four, certain groups of birds, especially those in the chicken family, were brought in to augment our native game birds. This week’s featured bird is in the last category.
Here, one has to keep in mind that about a hundred years ago, when most game birds were introduced, many people hunted wild birds and animals for food in much the same way in which we still harvest wild fish. As the human population increased, wild game was simply not able to sustain its numbers due to hunting pressure. The extinct Passenger Pigeon is a sad example of that. Luckily, agriculture was expanding at the same time that governments were starting to restrict the taking of wild game, and as a result, meat from domestic stock easily replaced meat from wild game. Present day sport hunting is a living remnant of that era. Currently, for reasons right or wrong (and with a lot of controversy), the fishing industry is evolving along the same course.
Quite often Europeans simply felt that Old World wildlife was superior to that found in the New World, and as a result, many species were introduced with little forethought – sometimes with devastating consequences. Fortunately, most introduced species were not able to adapt and perished. This week’s featured bird, the Crow-sized Grey Partridge, is one of the survivors that was introduced about a century ago as a ‘preferred” game bird. The fact that North America already had several native game birds seems to have been lost on these people. Even though the Grey Partridge has probably displaced some of our native game birds to a limited extent, we might as well enjoy it. It is here to stay.
The Grey Partridge was never introduced into Saskatchewan. Our population originates from birds introduced into Alberta that have expanded naturally into our area. Even though their populations have plummeted in Europe, they are still quite common in Canada. Therefore, they are considered game birds in Saskatchewan and can be hunted legally during hunting season.
In Britain, Grey Partridges are known as English Partridges; in continental Europe, they are known as Hungarian Partridges; in North America, they are usually referred to as “Huns”. Except for ornithologists and some birders, almost nobody calls them Grey Partridges – their official name! When one sees the bird, its name does appear to be a bit of a misnomer. They are not all that grey; rather, they are covered with reddish brown stripes on a grey body. The face is a distinctive orange. Males and females, though not identical, are very similar with the male, sporting a distinctive black belly patch. When flushed, they flash a lot of rich brown colour on the underside of their wings, and especially their tails, which is quite noticeable and diagnostic.
Fall is the best time to observe them as they are gathered in family groups for the winter. In spring they break up into breeding pairs. A good place to look for them is along fields and roads that are near trees. The trees provide cover and the open spaces provide a source of food in the form of spilled grain and their favorite – green grass for browsing. It is believed that Huns need exposed green grass in the dead of winter if they are to survive. Heavy snowfalls, without clearing winds, cause very high rates of mortality due to starvation. This week’s photo shows three Huns grazing on a lawn in a residential area in Calgary. There actually are six, but three were hidden behind the electrical box. It appears they are adapting quite well to man. After all, the lawns are a handy and plentiful source of food.
To get a good look at a Grey Partridge one needs to use binoculars. Even though Huns are quite common, their whereabouts on any given day are highly unpredictable. Patience is a requisite that can pay dividends to the persistent birder.