Bernie Kuntz: Studying the Hungarian partridge


One time about 25 years ago when I was working as regional information officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a pleasant older lady was referred to my phone.

She wanted to know something about Hungarian partridges. So I told her the bird was imported from the steppes of Asia and planted in the province of Alberta, Canada in 1909. From there partridges spread into southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota and southern Idaho. They live in short-grass prairie and stubble.

We chatted a few minutes, and then the lady said, "Well, you know, I have the same covey of about 15 partridges in my yard that was here when I bought this house 20 years ago."

I bit my tongue, but in retrospect I should have told her the truth—that according to Dr. John Weigand, who used to work down the hall from me and earned his Ph.D. studying Hungarian partridges, about 75 percent of the birds die from one year to the next. So that lady's covey was many times removed from the original birds the woman saw in her yard.

Twice the size of a quail, the partridge, or "Hun", as it is often called, is a strong flier that seems to be able to reach full speed in an instant. The whirring buzz of wingbeats and excited chirping of a covey of partridges, which can number two dozen or more, can be unnerving for a hunter.

Some of my best and also my poorest shooting has been when hunting gray partridges. One time many years ago I was tinkering with some shotshell handloads. I wanted to fire some so I drove south of Jamestown to a big coulee and set out on foot. To my surprise, a covey of Huns exploded at my feet, but instead of rocketing straight away as they usually do, they swung in a tight arc around me. I fired three shots as fast as I could work the action of the Remington Model 870 Wingmaster in 16 gauge.

Imagine my surprise when I managed to kill three birds with three shots, firing No. 4 lead—my only honest triple I ever have made on Hungarian partridges.

However, I remember another time when I was hunting a wonderful piece of property on the

eastern edge of Great Falls owned by a kindly old gentleman who always let me hunt there. I fired seven shots at several coveys until I managed to drop a bird.

Partridges are easy to kill but difficult to locate in the grass because they blend in well, and if not dead, are adept at hiding. As with all bird hunting, a dog is an asset to locating downed birds. I like a modified choke with No. 7-1/2 shot, although No. 6 also works well.

Later in the season partridges often become very wild and almost unapproachable. I have seen them explode from where they were resting in six inches of fresh snow. I suspect they use the snow for insulation.

Partridge flesh is lighter in color than a sharp-tailed grouse but darker than a pheasant or quail. I find partridges to be very good eating, an exotic character that has filled a niche on the northern plains and lives almost in our backyards.