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What's to Become of Hungarian Partridge?

Looking at the future of the Hungarian partridge amidst land use and climate change in the American West.

What's to Become of Hungarian Partridge?

Also known as the gray partridge, Huns are a coveted prize by many upland bird hunters. (Photo By: Tom Reichner/

Little wonder we love the Hungarian partridge. These lovely upland rockets live in coveys of up to a dozen birds, spreading around enough scent to make even olfactorily challenged dogs look accomplished. They thrive on the thin edges of both grain fields and native grass, which means you’re likely to find them about equally on public or private land. They’re often found on the margins of abandoned homesteads, around rusted planters and derelict swing sets that are as melancholy as they are picturesque.

Their explosive flush might be called “sporty” by a previous generation of hunting writers. A covey rise is announced by a trill that could be mistaken for the buzz of a rattlesnake if it wasn’t accompanied by the “cheet-cheet-cheet” of alarmed birds. Especially in stiff prairie winds, the covey can wing out of shotgun range before you can mount your gun, and second flushes usually require full chokes and a sustained lead.

hunter holding hungarian partridge for pointing dog to sniff
Huns generally hold well for pointers, and even hunters with tongue-lolling Labs can expect to pick off late-flushing singles. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager)

The Status of the Hungarian Partridge 

The places Huns frequent are among the handsomest in the West. I’ve had marvelous days chasing them on mid-elevation benchlands, between snowy ridges above and gentle cattail sloughs below that seem to always hold roosters in November. I could drop down to the buckbrush and buffalo-berry coulees for chuckling sharptail grouse, but Huns always seem to want a view, like so many of us who have found our homes in the West.

But Hungarian partridges aren’t thriving in proportion to so many latter immigrants to the region. Across much of their range, bird populations are either depressed or coveys are gone altogether. To be fair, this is nothing new. The shift has been happening on a continental scale for decades, ever since the European transplants were released from New York, Delaware, and Indiana to western Oregon, Colorado, and across the High Plains.

Huns were among upland bird species stocked by fish-and-game agencies in the put-and-take generation of wildlife management. Chukar partridge, ring-necked pheasants, and pen-raised quail were released across the country in hopes that some birds might survive and seed wild progeny. Where Huns did stick, the semi-arid grasslands and wheat belt west of the 100th Meridian, they boomed, to the degree that in the height of their populations, hunters could expect to encounter several coveys and bag limits of wild birds almost at will.

hunting hungarian partridge
Although once a stranger to the American West, the Hungarian partridge has become a staple component for many western upland bird hunts. (Photos By: Andrew McKean)

Boom and Bust Cycles  

More recently, though, Hun numbers are slumping in places they’ve been booming for decades. Take western North Dakota.

It’s been three or four years since Greg Aasheim saw a Hungarian partridge in his caragana shelterbelts east of Williston, North Dakota. In a normal year, he’d bump three or four coveys of the gray-and-rufous birds in the summertime while mowing around the windbreak and come September he could count on picking a consolation Hun out of his “home covey” if hunting was a bust in the wheat fields and grasslands farther afield.

“I haven’t shot a limit of Huns in a couple years, and I don’t know where our home birds went,” says Aasheim, who grew up limiting on the Northern Plains’ great trio of prairie birds: pheasants, sharptail grouse, and Hungarian partridge.

hunting hungarian partridge during covey rise shooting shotgun
A covey rise of Huns is a spectacle and a challenge for wingshooters to pick out their targets. (Photo By: Brian Grossenbacher)

Aasheim isn’t alone. To the north, the Saskatchewan fish-and-game department has recorded a third year of steep declines in Hun numbers, based on annual surveys of licensed upland hunters in the province’s southern grainbelt. Partridge numbers in Saskatchewan have bounced around from year to year but are generally down from highs in the mid-1980s.

And in eastern Washington State’s Palouse Prairie, once a stronghold for Huns, biologists report fewer numbers of birds and consequently fewer hunters. In 2020, Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife reported a harvest of only 4,657 birds by 2,216 hunters in the Palouse, located on the Idaho border south of Spokane. Compare those harvest totals with chukar partridges (13,858 birds killed by 4,091 hunters), forest grouse (48,000 killed by 22,300 hunters), or quail (66,000 killed by 11,000 hunters).

Does this mean the sun is setting on the gray partridge? Not even close. “Of all the Western upland species, Huns exhibit the greatest population variation from season to season and even from decade to decade,” says Rick Northrup, former upland bird program manager for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. “When they’re down, they can be way down, but when populations are up, they can explode into vacant habitats.”

For years, Northrup developed a predictor of upland bird populations—and probable hunting success—based on a number of variables. He says gray partridges are not only the most susceptible to cold, wet conditions during nesting and brood-rearing, but they also have the greatest capacity to boom when springtime nesting and hatching weather turns warm and dry.

“Hun population variability seems to have a close connection with both temperature and moisture,” says Northrup. “If you overlay average temperature and precipitation in late May and early June with our core partridge habitat, then you can develop a fairly good predictive model of the fall season. If it’s above 60 degrees and dry, you can count on fairly good chick survival. But if it’s 52 degrees with moisture, then those chicks are probably doomed to hypothermia, especially if the rain lasts for several days.”

two upland bird hunters walking in wheat grass field
Like several other upland game bird species, populations of Huns ebb and flow in response to weather factors and food availability across their habitat. (Photo By: Bill Buckley)

Montana’s upland bird forecast has often relied on matching seasonal climate data with core habitat, and Northrup says this remains one of the best predictors for bird hunters anywhere.

“We adapted our model from research done with bobwhite quail,” says Northrup. Indeed, a frequently cited paper of research from Oklahoma State and Texas A&M researchers, published by the federal Natural Resources and Conservation Service, says precipitation and heat are the key predictors for quail abundance in south Texas.

“Annual and seasonal variation in precipitation explains a good deal of the variation in production and abundance of quail in semiarid environments,” wrote the researchers. But “heat loads” also suppress populations.

“Annual variation in heat loads in the Rio Grande Plains was sufficient to explain boom-bust population behavior of bobwhites in this region,” wrote researchers, who hypothesized that “global warming could reduce the percentage of hens that attempt to lay” as well as the laying season and renesting efforts.

Climate Susceptibility  

Hungarian partridge declines and increasing average temperatures don’t always correlate, so it’s incorrect to say that climate change is a predictor of lower bird numbers. But it is a worry for some biologists, and not only because of elevated temperatures but because changing climate conditions can open the door to invasive species that are problematic for partridges.

In a wide-ranging study of both Hungarian and chukar partridge distribution and population dynamics in Hells Canyon, researchers from the University of Idaho concluded that “chukar and gray partridge populations and habitat in the Hells Canyon region are in good condition.” But they noted that emerging concerns included invasions by a pair of exotic plants, yellow-star thistle and medusahead, along with “effects on habitat from overgrazing livestock.”

Invasions of cheatgrass and red brome across the Great Basin are worrisome not only because they outcompete plant communities that provide more forage and insects that Huns (and chukars) require, but also because they cure so early in the season, fueling extensive and intense range fires that can displace coveys.

flock of hungarian gray partridge flying
The spring breeding season seems to be the largest contributing factor to the survivability of Hun populations. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager)

Winter conditions can also suppress Hun populations, say researchers in Saskatchewan. “In particular, cold winters with lots of snow and/or extensive snow crust are detrimental to the survival of birds, as they expend more energy and have a more difficult time accessing food,” says a report from Saskatchewan’s fish-and-game biologists. Still, as in Montana, springtime weather is the biggest predictor of gray partridge survival.

“From the point of view of sustaining populations, the key period in the upland game bird lifecycle is during the spring, when breeding occurs,” says authors of Saskatchewan’s Upland Game Bird Management Plan that prescribes management actions through 2028. “Maternal nutrition during the egg-laying period has been linked to a hen’s success in rearing young and a late green up period could prevent a hen from acquiring sufficient nutrients. These conditions force the hen to expend additional energy while incubating the eggs and to leave the nest more frequently to find food to fuel this energy expenditure. Additional movements between the nest and food sources make the hen and the nest more vulnerable to predation.”

Just as Montana’s Northrup reported, “Overall, cool, wet springs have the largest impact on recruitment” of Saskatchewan’s partridge populations. Unlike pheasants, which will renest repeatedly if earlier attempts fail, Huns generally make only one nesting attempt per season.

three dead hungrian partridge on top of old truck
Huns can often be found in close proximity to abandoned homesteads making for an ideal location to photograph a hard-earned brace of birds. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager)

Changing Farming Practices  

Assuming weather deals a fair hand to Huns and they pull off a successful hatch, the adults and juvenile birds have to make a living on a wide variety of forage, and more change is in the offing across the grainbelt.

Saskatchewan researchers note that, especially in contrast to the province’s native sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge “rely extensively on non-native habitats such as abandoned farmyards and shelterbelts that offer woody cover near crop interface. Interestingly, these unconventional habitats are being lost to support mechanized agricultural practices that utilize large machinery and have difficulty navigating smaller features on the landscape. The extent to which this is occurring is unknown, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it may be contributing to the gray partridge populations remaining below long-term averages in recent years.”

Back in North Dakota, Greg Aasheim sees that very change in land use in his neighborhood.“The trend is definitely toward bigger farms and larger equipment,” says Aasheim. “Those old unmaintained shelter-belts around the prairie that used to hold a fair number of Huns are going away. Farmers are tilling so much ground these days, and they’re using such big seeders and cultivation equipment, that they don’t want to farm around that old junk.”

hunter holding hungarian partridge in hand
Taking a Hun can sometime be a little bittersweet knowing they are a limited resource. (Photo By: Brian Grossenbacher)

And Aasheim has observed another change this spring. “We’re losing a ton of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land that is coming out of its 10-year contract,” he says. “Whether it’s grain prices going up or farmers buying that CRP ground to expand their operation, the effect is that we’ll have a lot more wheat on the landscape this fall and a lot less grass.”

Remnant populations of Huns may love that wheat while it’s in the field, but once it’s harvested, those birds have to find alternate food and cover. Aasheim says that, around his rural homestead, partridges will either flock to his shelterbelt or they’ll have to move miles away to the only unfarmed habitat in his township, a network of grassy sloughs.

“Honestly, I’d rather they found other areas,” says Aasheim. “I love hunting Huns, but I always feel a little bad when I shoot up one of the home coveys.”

dead huns on a tailgate
If you’re quick enough to bag one, the plump, juicy meat of the Hungarian partridge is among the best table fare of any of our upland birds. (Photo By: Andrew McKean)
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