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Original Issue

Right bird on the right prairie

Wherever they put him, the Hun partridge dropped dead—until he got to the grain fields of the West

On the great rolling prairies of North Dakota, the fields are stubbled yellow from horizon to horizon. The wheat harvest has ended, but in these fields the busiest time of year has just begun. Fat cock pheasants flush, cackling, from the coulees; prairie chickens covey in the windrows; and Hungarian partridge feed along the plowings. During these weeks, in the town of Raub, a housewife cannot buy a loaf of bread at the general store; Proprietor Earl Liebel is off gunning. In Minot anyone expecting a letter or wanting to buy a Ford has to wait till sundown when Postman Boyd Hustad or Ford Agent Gordon Westlie comes home from the field. And anyone who wanted the game warden on a recent day in McLean County would have had to whistle and wait—he was out shooting with me. For hunting is the prime recreation of one-fourth the population of North Dakota; and certainly even in this record year for upland game (SI, Sept. 11), there are no states that produce birds in as large numbers, and few states with as much variety.

The handsomest target in these great flocks is the ring-necked pheasant. But just as numerous and far more exciting to shoot, is an unglamorous little handful of brownish-gray feathers called the Hungarian partridge (right). Bigger than a quail, not as large as a ruffed grouse, the Hun is fast becoming the No. 1 upland game bird not only in North Dakota but throughout much of the North Central prairie region. As such, it is a striking example of the superb sport that can result from planting the right bird in the right place.

Like the pheasant, the Hun partridge is an immigrant. Benjamin Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache, imported the first ones in the late 18th century. For some reason Bache felt that New Jersey was a lot like Hungary, so he released the birds in New Jersey—where they promptly died. In the next hundred years other Hun fanciers released birds in almost every other state in the country, but whatever subtle combination of elements caused them to flourish in central and southeastern Europe did not seem to exist on this side of the Atlantic. By 1900 biologists were ready to concede that the Hungarian partridge was happier in Hungary.

As a matter of fact, it was—until 1908, when a small sportsman's club in Alberta imported 200 pairs and released them, with great enthusiasm but very little hope, in the prairies around Calgary. The Huns loved it. Within five years they were multiplying and spreading at the incredible rate of 28 miles per year throughout the entire southern portion of the province. Neighboring Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, Idaho and Iowa soon discovered—with no effort on their parts, with neither special conservation measures, stocking programs nor habitat improvement—that they too had expanding colonies of Hungarians.

Like the old country

What the birds liked was the comparatively dry climate, with limited rainfall spread evenly over the year, instead of the pelting torrents one is likely to get in New Jersey during the late spring. They also liked the open prairie, but most of all they liked living on farmland. In short, they were typical immigrants: after coming all this way they still liked what they had back home.

The primary concentrations of Hungarian partridge remain in this original northern Great Plains region with two secondary areas in the southern Lake states and the Pacific Northwest. In the U.S. the greatest population is in North Dakota, where 90% of the state is in agriculture, and some 41 million acres of spring and durum wheat, rye, flax and barley give the birds both food and cover. More than 400,000 Huns have been killed in a single season in that state alone, and normal populations rival those of any native upland species.

The Hun has achieved this lofty estate with little or no help. Nor does he need any. One of the hardiest birds on the continent, the Hun not only can survive long stretches of sub-zero weather, but actually seems to enjoy it. When other species such as the pheasant and the sharp-tailed grouse huddle in brush, seeking cover from freezing winds and snow, the Hun can often be found strutting around on an unprotected field. When the Hun does seek cover, he is usually trying to get out of the sun. The birds need very little water and can sustain themselves, if necessary, by sucking the dew from the morning grass.

Unlike the pheasant, which can eat its way through a Nebraska cornfield, or the ruffed grouse, which is not above gorging itself in a Massachusetts cranberry patch, the Hungarian's damage to crops is insignificant and most farmers welcome the birds on their land. In fact, it is a rare Dakota farmer who does not have at least one covey in his front yard—the birds seem to like to rest close to a house or barn.

Wherever they choose their cover, Huns usually rest in midday and at night. Then, in the morning until about 11, and again in the early evening, they move out into the plowings to feed. In these hours the Hungarians are hunted in the corners of the fields and along the edges of dirt-track roads. But they can be hunted, too, in the middle of a warm autumn afternoon when they gather in the windrows and the plantings, seeking shade from the sun.

It was on just such a lazy October day that I hunted them recently with Dr. E. G. DeMots of Minot. In the three decades since Hungarian partridge have been legal game in North Dakota, the doctor has not missed an open season. His dental patients learned long ago to have their teeth put in order during the summer, because, after opening day, the doctor is out where the Huns are.

We hunted an area some 70 miles southwest of Minot, an area of open fields broken only by lines of windrows. Here the plantings are rarely more than a quarter of a mile long or 20 to 30 yards wide and two people can easily cover a dozen or more on a leisurely hunt. With few exceptions, every one holds not only partridge but an exciting variety of other game. For example, a raucous cock pheasant burst from the first planting, and down a few yards some 16 sharp-tailed grouse sprang into the air.

We walked abreast along the edges at either side of the windrow, a Labrador retriever at heel and a Brittany spaniel out ahead. The close-ranging Brittany is especially suited to this kind of hunting, since he can be taught to approach Hun cover cautiously and point the birds well before reaching them. This is important, because unlike bobwhite quail, Hungarians are skittish and rarely sit tight to a dog. Usually they will flush wild out of shooting range; and even within range, their swift and erratic flight makes them difficult targets for the best of shots.

When the Brittany pointed, therefore, he was signaling not a covey under his nose but Huns some 30 or 40 yards ahead. Though the Hungarians are inclined to go up early, it is impossible to predict what they will do. One covey burst into the air before we reached the dog; another held until we passed it and then, gabbling noisily, took off almost under our feet. In fact, no two coveys of the many dozen flushed were exactly alike, and this, perhaps, is an important reason why the Hungarian ranks so high as a sporting target.

But there are other reasons. Once flushed, the birds seldom fly much beyond a few hundred yards, and a sharp-eyed hunter can usually spot where they sit down—in a field or in another planting—and then walk them up again. We flushed the same large covey of Huns several times this way.

The endurance of the birds brought down was exceptional. Even cleanly hit, a Hun may fly more than 100 yards before falling. This is why a retriever is a necessity. A dead bird, down at a distance, is hard to find. And a crippled Hun tends to sit motionless. More than one has been stepped over by a hunter who failed to see the bird huddled at the bottom of a furrow.

Thanks to his ubiquitous nature, the Hungarian provides a bonus for seekers after pheasants, sharptail, ruffed grouse and even ducks. It is this bonus of hunting excitement that brings out-of-state hunters back into North Dakota each year. And it is the sort of bonus that other regions can provide by supplementing their native birds with adaptable immigrants. This already is being done in the Southwest, particularly in Nevada where the chukar partridge was imported from India to become the No. 1 game bird. Other states are experimenting with even more exotic birds—the kalij pheasant in Virginia, the bamboo partridge in Missouri and the red jungle fowl in, of all places, Oklahoma. Some of these birds may turn out to be as unhappy with their new environments as Bache's birds were as they sat in the rain in New Jersey. But as they settle into the proper habitat, it is not overoptimistic to think these imports ultimately may provide gunners all over the U.S. with as much sport as the Hungarian partridge now offers in North Dakota.