by Bruce Auchly - Region 4
Thursday, March 23, 2017
Those bits of feather, flesh and bones that sing and call forth are among our first signs of spring, even in March’s moodiness.
Doesn’t matter if you hunt them in the fall, look for them with longing in the spring, or don’t care to know a robin from a red-tail; they are here and doing their thing.
Over-wintering birds are sitting on eggs or getting ready to mate even through this leonine month of wind, cold and snow.
A friend on the prairie had seen her covey of Hungarian partridge dwindle in numbers recently until just a couple of birds flushed the other day.
Although weather and predators certainly take a toll on birds that winter here, what she probably saw was a male and a female partridge paired up for the upcoming breeding season.
Already, male pheasants are crowing, advertising for females, though the peak of breeding won’t happen till early May.
Eagles and owls are sitting on eggs now and Canada geese will begin nesting by late March. Come the end of the month, Western meadowlarks will be everywhere, or so it will seem.
But eagles, pheasants and meadowlarks are headliner species. On the prairie stage now, the small Hungarian, or Gray, partridge, gets second billing.
Huns, like pheasants, are an introduced species. Though found in all except Montana’s forested, mountainous habitats, they persist mostly in pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse range.
The farmed prairie.
“You generally don’t find them west of the Divide,” said John Weigand, retired Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist and expert on Huns.
The reddish and gray birds eat cereal grains, grass materials and (hooray) dandelions, depending on the season. Throw in insects in summer and fall, and we’ve got a party.
The birds pick a mate in February so Huns seen by March 1 are typically male-female pairs.
“A snowstorm might bring a covey back together,” Weigand said. “As soon as it melts the pairs will go off again.”
Peak of nesting starts the third week of May with an average 14 eggs per nest. Hatching peaks June 19-25.
But these are just numbers, worthy of an actuary’s table.
To get a sense now of Huns and early spring, take a drive on a gravel road cutting through farmland. Remember that the birds remain close to grain or fallow during every month of the year.
Next, look for stubble fields bordered with weedy patches or woody cover, like in a caragana row or a rose hedgerow.
“They will use woody cover by day for protection from avian predators,” Weigand said. “At night, they roost on open ground.”
Also, they need a minimum 3 percent idle land in their territory, Weigand said: “Not grain or pasture but spots like machinery storage areas that have grown into weeds. Or abandoned farmsteads. When you’re out of idle areas, you’re out of Huns.”
Then, be quiet.
Male partridge call to females much like pheasants, but not as loud. Listen for a croak, followed by a raspy cackle as if he knows a secret about the spring prairie that we don’t.
After the female selects her mate, she, not he, protects their territory from other females.
So, the bird who has spent the winter shuttling between cover and a stubble field, searching for waste grain, warily watching for predators, now has his female partner looking out for him.
Maybe he does know something about life that we don’t.