The Hungarian partridge or gray partridge (more correct common name) is another one of Grundy County's upland birds. The partridge is a nonnative bird that originated in Hungary. The gray partridge was successfully introduced in Palo Alto County in 1905. This release constitutes Iowa's first wild stock. By 1914 most northern counties had received a standardized release of 20 pairs each. By 1932 the state commission had released 20,000+ partridge in Iowa. Most of the stocking were concentrated to the northern part of the state. A few stockings were attempted in southern Iowa, but all attempts failed. In 1937 the first partridge hunting season was held for 11 northwestern counties. By 1940 the partridge was present in most northern counties.
The gray partridge is an upland bird that stands only 12 to 14 inches tall. Their chosen habitat consists of open landscapes of intense small grain and row crop agriculture. They have an annual mortality rate of 70-90%, so very few birds live to age 3. One interesting fact is the partridge are monogamous, unlike pheasants and turkeys; they remain paired throughout the breeding season. Identity between sexes is not as obvious as in other birds. The male has a dark horseshoe marking on its lower breast. So unlike in pheasants where it is only legal to harvest the males or roosters; it is legal to harvest males and or females while hunting partridge.
Partridge are birds that use coveys as way to survive. Often they will covey with a group of 8 to 15 individuals and form a tight circle with their heads all pointing outward. This provides all members with a mutual protection against predators and also helps in conserving body heat through Iowa's harsh winters. Unlike the pheasant, where the lack of wintering habitat has contributed in the decline of Iowa's pheasant population, it does not seem to be a serious limiting factor in the partridge population. Rugged winter weather in its native Eurasia seems to have prepared the partridge for winter survival in Iowa. Where the pheasant's native climate was much warmer is the central Asia region. So therefore a winter like this year may not have as much of a negative impact on the partridge as it may on the pheasant population.
Unlike other upland birds and especially our native upland bird, the prairie chicken, gray partridge populations seem to remain stable and often increase in intensively farmed regions. They seem to thrive in areas abundant with small grains, especially wheat, in conjunction with lightly grazed pastures and row crops. Also studies have shown that the gray partridge prefers nesting in the road ditches and fence lines, while avoiding popular pheasant nesting areas like hay and alfalfa fields. So once again this reiterates the need for parking the ditch mowers till after July 15th, in hopes of possibly saving a brood or two. I do believe that the slight increase in the partridge population in Grundy County is a direct result of the state law restricting the mowing of roadsides till after July 15th.
We may never see the populations of the 1960's, but I do hope with the changes in mowing and maybe catching a break the next few springs we might be able to have a stable gray partridge population for people to enjoy.