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Gray Partridge

Known for their foraging behavior, these birds can be spotted on grasslands and are even known to visit gardens.

A non-native game bird, the Gray Partridge has decreased its range in the east and increased its range to the south in recent decades. Gray Partridges eat mainly seeds and grains, including important agricultural crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and corn.

Gray Partridges often occur in coveys, which are made up of paired adults and their offspring. Ring-necked Pheasants sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of partridge, and the pheasant chicks tend to dominate the partridge chicks.


Description of the Gray Partridge


The Gray Partridge has brownish upperparts, a gray breast, and gray flanks with chestnut stripes.

Males have a mostly orange head and a dark belly patch.  Length: 13 in.  Wingspan: 19 in.


Females have a buffy head and lack a belly patch.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble adults, but are duller.


Gray Partridges inhabit grasslands and agricultural fields.


Gray Partridges eat seeds, insects, and leaves.


Gray Partridges forage on the ground. They also burrow into snowbanks to reach the ground for food.


Gray Partridges are resident across parts of the northern U.S. The population is declining.

Fun Facts

Gray Partridges were introduced to the U.S. from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Gray Partridges form coveys outside of the breeding season, but they can be difficult to see as they forage within cover.


The song consists of a harsh “keeuck”. Several clucks and covey calls are given also.


Similar Species

  • The bold, rufous belly stripes and buffy to orange face make Gray Partridges easy to identify.


The Gray Partridge’s nest consists of a scrape on the ground lined with grass.

Number: Usually lay 12-18 eggs.
Color: Buffy.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 21-26 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Gray Partridge

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.


EUROPEAN PARTRIDGE  [Current A.O.U. = Gray Partridge]


Attempts to introduce the European gray partridge into North America have met with marked success in certain favorable localities and with many dismal failures in other places less congenial to it. Dr. John C. Phillips (1928) has summarized the whole history of these attempts. Of the earlier unsuccessful importations he says:

The earliest attempt at introduction, which so far as known was made by Richard Bache, son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin, who stocked his plantation on the Delaware River near what is now the town of Beverly, N. J., with Hungarian partridges, dates back to the latter part of the eighteenth century. There were subsequent attempts in Virginia and New Jersey, most important of which was Pierre Lorillard’s effort in 1879 at Jobstown, N. J. Later attempts commenced in a small way in 1899, but the real fever of importation along the Atlantic coast began about 1905 and has lasted up to the present, although the period 1907 and 1914 saw the height of the industry. In Eastern States Importations of these hardy little birds have been put down all the way from Portland, Me., and northern New York to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi. In Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, the work was done on a large scale and, at first, with encouraging results. In a few places the birds undoubtedly bred the first season, and in other places as in the Connecticut Valley, they persisted for 8 or 10 years in considerable numbers; eventually they vanished, however, between 1915 and 1920.

The results on the western plains and prairies have been quite successful, of whiThe results in the far Western States and in western and central Canada may be briefly summarized. The most remarkable success followed immediately upon the first Introductions into Alberta, near Calgary, In 1908: 9. On April 20, November 16, and December 10, 1908, Calgary sportsmen liberated about 70 pairs over a small area mostly south and west of Calgary. More came on April 20, 21, and 22, 1909, and in all some 207 pairs seem to have formed the basis for this wonderful result. The first birds were placed some 16 miles south of Calgary, and after the first large plantIngs, 40 paIrs in one place and 30 not far away (High River and west of that place), the rest were planted mostly in lots of 10 pairs. This stock came from Hungary. Some time later the Northern Alberta Game and Fish Protection League liberated a fresh importation of 230 bIrds in Alberta near Edmonton, but the stock from Calgary had In the meantime spread north to that city. The gain in territory from this nucleus has been little short of marvelous. The birds have now spread at least 60 miles northwest of Edmonton (Pemhina River) and breed there. There has been an open season on them In Alberta for years, and they are now by far the commonest of imported game birds In western Canada. The spread from this initial plant has carried the Hungarian partridge Into Saskatchewan and all over Its western part as lar north as township 60 and south to the International boundary. All this happened within only five years from the time the bird was first recorded in the Province.

A. G. Lawrence writes to me:

First liberated in Manitoba In April, 1924, when the Game Protective League released at Warren, Manitoba, 40 pairs Imparted direct from Czechoslovakia. A second shipment was received In January, 1925, 17 pairs being later released at Neepawa, Manitoha, and 26 paIrs at Warren. These birds are apparently well adapted to the prairies and seem to be establishing themselves In the areas In which they were liberated.

The experience with this partridge in the State of Washington well illustrates the fact that it will flourish, increase, and spread in the type of open country that it prefers, but will barely hold its own or will die out entirely in less favorable regions. D. J. Lefflngwell says in his notes: We find the Introduction of the partridge has been most successful In the dry nonforested areas with an elevation of 1,000 or more feet above sea level and where the game enemies are rare. The lack of vermin and the large open fields In which the birds may feed are prohably the most Important factors. The birds should not be Introduced outside of the Temperate or Transition Zone.

In the comparatively humid regions of western Washington attempts to introduce Hungarian partridges have not been very successful. S. F. Rathbun says of this section:

Western Washington Is a picturesque region of mountains, hIli~, valleys, and streams. Originally It was clothed with a dense and luxuriant forest mostly coniferous, but now a great change In this respect is apparent. As has been so often the case In the past in a new country, the development of the region began along the lines of least resistance: in this Instance it being where land and water met: and now to a large extent the tall forests have been replaced by broad cultivated areas that steadily encroach upon the still undeveloped ones.

On the other hand the birds have prospered and spread in the eastern part of the State, of which he writes:

Eastern Washington, on the contrary, is a section quite devoid of forests except along many of Its streams and some of the more rugged parts, and even then this growth lacks the luxuriance of that of the west side; In fact, being scanty by comparison. And many parts of eastern Washington are more or less elevated and open, wide-sweeping plateaus roiling In turn to the watercourses.

In Oregon the story is much the same. William L. Finley writes to me:

During the years 1913: 14 we liberated 1,5~ of these birds in various counties throughout the State. In the Wiliamette Valley and places In southern Oregon the climate is mild, and the country is varied with patches of timber, fields, and gardens, which from all reports Is very similar to the European home of these birds. In the eastern part of Oregon where the partridges were Uberated the altitude is a little higher; It is colder in winter; the hills are covered with broad grain fields with quite a lot of wild sagebrush country surrounding, also more or less trees and brush in the canyons. It came rather as a surprise to find that the partridges did not increase and thrive In the Willlamette Valley and southern Oregon, but they multiplied quite rapidly all through the northeastern part of Oregon, and especially in the southeastern part of Washington, where quite a number of these birds were imported and released.

According to Charles J. Spiker (1929) Hungarian partridges have been introduced successfully in northern Iowa, where they have spread into six counties, as well as three counties in southern Minnesota. He says of this bird:

There is no more charming bird on the Iowa landscape than the Hungarian Partridge, nor one which better deserves protection at the bands of those who have brought it from its native haunts to become acclimated and adjusted to new environments. While It is not highly colored, like the Ringnecked Pheasant, yet it Is a beautiful bird and merits a great deal of enthusiasm from an aesthetic point of view as well as the more mercenary point of view of the sportsman. In size It is somewhat larger than the Bob-white, and has some of the characteristics of this species. Seen as it flies directly away from the observer, especially as It first takes off from the ground or spreads its tall In alighting, it presents its very distinguishing field mark. This is the rich russet of the tail feathers, visible only in flight, and concealed by the upper coverts when at rest, but greatly resembling the sheen of that of the Red-tailed Hawk. If one be so fortunate as to behold the bird on a bank about on a level with his eyes or slightly above him, as it has upon two or three occasions occurred with me, he will note the black crescent just below the breast, practically In the middle of the belly, but so located that the bird must be in just the exact position for this mark to show itself.

Courtship: The Rev. F. C. R. Jourdain has sent me the following quotation from F. Menteith Ogilvie: In March courtship proper will have begun. In the great majority of cases, the birds will have definitely selected their partners. Here and there, where the males are in excess, constant fights will take place, often resulting in the elder male ousting the younger froni the possession of the female, a most undesirable occurrence when it happens, looked at from the breeding point of view. The old males are not only more pugnacious and stronger birds, but they are also either infertile or much less fertile than the young male and the result of the union is likely to be a small laying, a still smaller hatching, and a large percentage of rotten eggs. Throughout March, while pairing is going on fighting is generally continuous and severe. These fights are very amusing to watch: the two males, bristling with fury, feathers raised and wattles showing, rush at each other striking and buffeting with their wings, generally Jumping a few inches from the ground. The “round” may last 3 or 4 minutes; the lady, close by picking up a seed here and there and preening herself, is apparently unconscious of the furious rivalry she is exciting. The fighters now separate a little distance and recommence feeding and peace seems to be declared, till one or other approaches too near the female, when war is instantly declared again. So the battle continues with intervals over a considerable period, possib.y a week or more, until one of the two is finally vanquished and the happy pair are left to their honeymoon. I have often watched fights of this kind, and I never could see that the Partridges inflicted any real damage on each other; their principal offensive weapon seemed to be their wings. Their bills they rarely used, and their feet they didn’t appear to use at all. The studied Inattention of the female Is most amusing to watch, and I conclude she exercises no choice in the matter at all, beyond promising her hand to the better man.

Nesting: The nest of this partridge is a very simple affair, a slight depression in the ground, lined with a few dead leaves, dry grass, or straw. It is usually placed among bushes, or in long grass, fields of clover, or in standing grain. Mr. Jourdain says in his notes:

It should be noted that during the time of laying (which may last for three weeks) the eggs are carefully covered up by the hen bird with grass or dead leaves. When she comes to the nest to lay she scratches away the covering, deposits an egg, and then replaces it again. Until the clutch is complete the eggs are laid anyhow. When the hen is about to incubate she arranges them with the greatest care and for a single day curiously enough, leaves the eggs uncovered and then begins to incubate. She is a good mother and sits very closely, especially after the first few days. The male bird takes no part in brooding but remains close at hand for defense if necessary.

Eggs: Of the eggs Mr. Jourdain says that normally the clutch ranges from S or 9 to about 20. I have known cases of as many as 21 and 22, which may have been the produce of one hen hut the higher numbers which occasionally are met with, 26 to 40 (i), are undoubtedly due to two hens laying together in one nest. In color they are uniformly olive, s ~metimes darker, sometimes lighter, but occasionally clutches have been found with almost white eggs, while a bluish type has also been recorded. One hundred British eggs measured by myself averaged 36.8 by 27.4 millimeters. The eggs showing the greatest extremes measured 38.9 by 28.4 and 37.7 by 29.4, 33.8 by 26.3, and 87.5 by 25.7 millimeters.

Young: Mr. Jourdain writes:

Incubation lasts not less than 24 full days, as a rule, though Hanroth gives 23% as the period in Germany. In England most birds hatch out on the 25t.h day. When the young are hatched both parents take charge and are most active and courageous in defense of the young. On one occv’ion I heard a pair on the far side of a hedge, and looking over the top I was surprised to find that the bold little cock flew straight at my head with loud outcry while the hen busied herself in getting the young under cover as soon as possible.

Several of the early British writers have referred to an incident, related by Yarrell (1871) as follows:

A person engaged in a field, not far from my residence, had his attention arrested by some objects on the ground, which, upon approaching, he found to be two Partridges, a male and female, engaged in battle with a Carrion Crow; so successful and so absorbed were they in the issue of the contest, that they actually held the Crow till it was seized and taken from them by the spectator of the scene. Upon search, young birds, very lately hatched, were found concealed amongst the grass. It would appear, therefore, that the Crow, a mortal enemy to all kinds of young game, In attempting to carry off one of these, had been attacked by the parent birds, and with this singular result.

Plumages: In Witherby’s handbook (1920) the downy young is described as follows:

Crown chestnut with a few small black spots sometimes extending to lines; back of neck with a wide black line down centre, at sides pale buff marked black; rest of upper-parts pale buff with some rufous and black blotches or illdefined lines, at base of wings a spot, and on rump a patch, of chestnut; forehead and sides of head pale yellow-buff (sometimes tinged rufous) with spots, small blotches, and lines of black; chin and throat uniform pale yellow-buff; rest of under-parts slightly yellower, bases of down sooty.

And the juvenal plumage, in which the sexes are alike, is thus described:

Crown black-brown finely streaked buff, each feather having buff shaftstreak; back of neck, mantle, back, rump and upper tail-coverts buff-brown, with whitish to pale buff shaft-streaks inconspicuously margined blackish; lores and sides of head dark brown streaked whitish; chin, throat and centre of belly whitish to pale buff; breast, sides and flanks and under tail-coverts brown-buff slightly paler than mantle and with whiter shaft-streaks, faintly margined brown on flanks; tail much like adult but feathers tipped buff and with subterminal dusky bar and spots and central ones speckled and barred dusky; primaries brown with pale buff tips and widely spaced bars on outer webs; secondaries with pale buff bars extending across both webs and vermiculated brown, shafts pale buff; scapulars, inner secondaries and wingcoveats brown-buff with wide brown-black bars and mottlings and pale shaftstreaks widening to white spots at tips of feathers.

A postjuvenal molt, which is complete except for the outer two primaries, produces a first winter plumage. The sexes are now differentiated and resemble the two adults, except for the more pointed tips of the outer primaries. This molt begins when the young bird is about half grown and is sometimes prolonged through December.

Adults have a partial prenuptial molt in May and June, sometimes in April, and a complete molt from July to November or December. Several observers have experienced some difficulty in distinguishing the sexes among adults, chiefly because many females have the dark chestnut patch on the belly more or less well developed. There seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether this character is more pronounced in old or in young females. But the sexes can always be distinguished by two characters; the light chestnut on the sides of the head is lighter and more restricted in the female; the median wing coverts of the female are dark brown or black, with widely spaced, pale-buff bars; whereas these coverts in the male have no transverse bars, but only a pale-buff shaft streak.

Food: Jn Witherby’s handbook (1920) the food of the partridge is summarized by Mr. Jourdain, as follows:

Chiefly shoots and leaves of grass and clover as well as seeds of many species including Pot voonum, TrifoHum, Alclzem4fla, Galiam, Sperguta, Persloaria, Poe, etc. Turnip leaves, young shoots of heather, bramble and blaeberry, hawthorn berries, and corn also eaten. In spring and summer insects are also taken, including dlptera (Tipull,dae and larvae), coleoptera and hyinenoptera (‘ints and their pupae being very favourite food). Also aphides. Once recorded as eating pears on tree!

Crops and stomachs of American birds also contained wheat, barley, and oats, mainly waste grain, seeds of wild buckwheat, pigweed, and other weeds, and grasshoppers. It is said that these birds do not pull up sprouting corn as the pheasants do. Their food habits seem to be wholly beneficial.

Behavior: Macgillivray (1837) says, of the gray partridge, tnat it is fond of rambling into waste or pasture grounds, which are covered with long grass, furze, or broom; but it does not often enter woods, and never perches on trees. It runs with surprising speed, when alarmed or in pursuit of its companions, although In general, it squats under the apprehension of danger, or when nearly approached takes flight. Its mode of flying is similar to that of the Brown Ptarmigan; it rises obliquely to some height, and then flies off in a direct course, rapidly flapping its wings, which produce a whirring sound.

Yarrell (1871) writes:

During the day a covey of Partridges, keeping together, are seldom seen on the wing unless disturbed; they frequent grass-fields, preferring the hedge-sides, some of them picking up insects, and occasionally the green leaves of plants; others dusting themselves in any dry spot where the soil Is loose, and this would seem to be a constant practice with them in dry weather, if we may Judge by the numerous dusting places, with the marks and feathers to be found about their haunts; and sportsmen find, in the early part of the shooting-season, that young and weak birds are frequently infested with numerous parasites. In the afternoon the covey repair to some neighoouring field of standing corn, or, if that be cut, to the stubble, for the second daily meal of grain; and, this completed, the call-note may be heard, accord

ing to White, as soon as the beetles begin to buzz, and the whole move away together to some spot where they jug, as it is called: that is, squat and nestle close together for the night; and from the appearance of the mutings, or droppings, which are generally deposited in a circle of only a few Inches in diameter, It would appear that the birds arrange themselves also in a circle, of which their tails form the centre, all the heads being outwards: a disposition which instinct has suggested as the best for observIng the approach of any of their numerous enemies, whatever may be the direction, and thus increase their security by enabling them to avoid a surprise. In the morning early they again visit the stubble for a breakfast, and pass the rest of the days as before. Fields of clover or turnips are very favourite places of resort during the day. Mr. Harvie-Brown informs the editor that when the snow lay upon the ground he has known a covey to roost regularly on a limb of a large tree; and he has also seen Partridges “treed” by a dog.

Considerable discussion has appeared in print on the effect, on our native game birds, of introducing Hungarian partridges. Some claim that where the partridges are increasing the native grouse are disappearing. Most of our grouse are subject to periodic fluctuation in numbers from other causes; and it does not seem to have been definitely proved that the partridges are the cause of any local decrease in grouse. There are certainly plenty of suitable nesting sites for all these ground-nesting species; there is no proof that any shortage of food supply has led to any disastrous competition between them; and there is no evidence that the smaller partridges ever attack the larger grouse, which should be more than a match for them. Though there is always danger in introducing a foreign species, it would seem that the little gray partridge is more likely to prove a complementary than a competitive species.

Enemies: Partridges, like all other ground-nesting species, are preyed upon by the whole long list of furred and feathered enemies, but they are such prolific breeders that their natural enemies are not likely seriously to reduce their numbers. Their habits of feeding in the open during the day and roosting in the open at night, make them especially exposed to the attacks of hawks and owls. The ringnecked pheasant may have to be reckoned with, as an enemy of the partridge. Mr. Spiker (1929) writes:

Northwestern Iowa has not until fairly recently been afflicted with this pernicious bird, but they are on the increase, and farmers have told me that with the coming in of the Ring-necked Pheasant, the partridges are departing. Perhaps a concrete example would be admissible here. Mr. Raymond Rowe, a farmer living a few miles northwest of Sibley, while plowing late last fall (1927), observed something of a commotion in a little swale a short distance from his plowing. Prompted by curiosity he walked over to the place and flushed half a dozen partridges and three Rlng.necked Pheasants. On the ground before him lay the bleeding bodies of three partridges newly killed. It was just dusk, and doubtless the smaller species had crept into the long grass to spend the night and had been fallen upon by the pheasants who were already there. Stories are also told of the destruction of the nests of the Hungarian Partridge by pheasants.

Voice : Mr. Spiker (1929) says that the voice is not unmusical, and yet not conspicuous unless listened for, It is especially noticeable on a still spring evening, when there is little or no breeze, and the shadows of dusk follow the disappearance of the sun. There is a single twosyliabled chuckling note which may be represented somewhat by the syllables “kee-uck,” the second syllable being rather raspy or throaty as compared to the first, which is high pitched and nasal. Upon being flushed, the bird takes off with the startling whirr of wings characteristic of this family, uttering the while a rapid cackling which diminishes to tl~e above given notes repeated several times and with a gradually increasing interval between them. In the immediate vicinity of Ashton it is not unusual to hear from four to eight of these birds calling at the same time and from as many different directions.

Walter H. Rich (1909) writes of some birds in captivity:

In their coop they used a great variety of language; they clucked like a Grouse; they chattered like a Blackbird; they snapped their bills like an Owl; they “jawed” like a Parrot; they made a guttural note of alarm like the “br-r-r-r” of a startled Pigeon; they hissed like a Black Duck guarding her nest, or like a Thomas cat whose dignity Is ruffled not Quite enough for anger; and, In addition, they are said to “crow” at evening.

Game: Provided that the Hungarian partridge does not seriously interfere with the welfare of our native species, it seems to be a wise and valuable addition to our list of game birds. I have never hunted it, but those who have speak very highly of it. It is a strong, swift flier, smart and sagacious, well fitted to test the skill of the best sportsmen. It is a. fine bird for the table. Unfortunately it will survive and flourish only in certain favorable sections, mainly the northwestern grainfields and grassy plains. There it can probably survive much more intensive hunting than either the prairie chicken or the sharp-tailed grouse.

One of the men who helped to introduce the partridge in Washington wrote to Mr. Rathbun as follows: From the standpoint of a game bird I believe them to be the gamest of them all. The law of the covey Is very strong, and when they flush all of them go at the same time. There seems to be less than a fraction of a second between the time the first one and the last one makes his get-away. They will always be able to take care of themselves, since they become very wild when much shooting is done. When one Is winged or slightly wounded so that he can not fly he will run a mile sometimes before a hunter’s dog overtakes him. During the winter months they come right into the towns and eat at the back doors of the residences. They ~x’ill help themselvee to strawstacks, haystacks, and anything edible. At night they burrow In the snow, sometimes making little tunnels 4 or 5 feet long under 2 feet of snow. I have hunted upland game birds in the West covering a period of 37 years, but I believe the Hungarian partridge, considered from every standpoint as a game bird, Is the premier one of the Pacific coast.

Winter: Mr. Spiker (1929) says:

The species is gregarious during the winter, beginning to flock In October and continuing till the last of February. During this season they frequent the stalk fields left after the picking of the corn. When the gregarious spirit Is upon theni they are exceedingly wary and are up and away almost as they see the hunter enter the field. The startling noise with which they take flight and their extremely rapid coursing across the field make them a very difficult target, and, although many attempts are made by poachers, few birds fail as victims. By the latter part of February, however, there comes a change when they begin breaking up and pairing off, and at this time they appear to lose some of their wariness.

Introduced more or less unsuccessfully in the Eastern States, from Maine and New York southward to Florida and Mississippi, also in California. In the Central States, from Minnesota and Michigan to Kansas and Arkansas, most attempts at introduction have failed, except in extreme northwestern Kansas, in parts of Iowa (Osceola and Lyon Counties), and in southeastern Wisconsin (Waukesha County). Introduced birds have done well in southern British Columbia (Fraser Valley) and in eastern Washington and Oregon (east of the Cascade Mountains). The most remarkable success has been attained in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, where the birds have flourished and spread over a wide territory.

Egg dates: Washington: 4 records, May 25 to June 10.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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