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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Feed the birds on Christmas Day

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

Over the years, this column has advanced half a dozen or more species as the Christmas Bird. Criteria for judgment have varied, but the verdict comes down to nostalgia.

Certainly, the partridge doesn't qualify on the basis of color. As its name suggests, the partridge is a plain bird; so plain, in fact, that it is often overlooked. Its "protective coloration" is nearly perfect, whether the bird is in an open field or hiding in tall grass.

Nor is the partridge a musical bird. It doesn't sing, it squawks. This noise is a second line of defense. It's intended to scare passersby, whether they are two-legged hikers or hunters or four-legged passersby, such as cattle, or predators, such as coyotes.

Partridges are not migratory, but they are most numerous and likely to be encountered in early winter, when food is most abundant. Partridges are seed eaters, and rural roads are buffet lines for hungry partridges. Weeds flourish along road edges, where blacktop or gravel meets the slope of the ditch. Grain sometimes spills from passing farm equipment, including trucks loaded with grain. Ditches often provide protective cover, too.

Partridges have other survival skills. They burrow into snowbanks, huddle up, share warmth and take advantage of the insulating quality of snow. This protects them from cold wind and from predators, including snowy owls. It also gives them access to seeds buried under snow.

These adaptations seem especially suited to the Northern Plains, but gray partridges are not native to North America. They were brought here to provide quarry for human hunters. The first introductions in North Dakota were made a little more than 100 years ago, in 1915, when state game managers released 50 pair. A like number were released in 1923, and in the next decade, game managers brought in 7,500 birds, most of them from central Europe. Canadian wildlife officials had released partridges in Alberta in 1908, 1909 and 1922. This population thrived and began spreading southeastward. By 1923, they'd reached northwest North Dakota.

Partridges soon spread throughout the state; by 1940, game managers estimated the number of partridges in North Dakota was as high as 4 million birds. They based the number on surveys made along rural roads.

Rapid population growth is characteristic of species exploiting new habitat, especially if the new range is relatively safe. That proved to be the case in the middle of North America, because a world war drew many potential game bird hunters away.

This coincidence helped partridge populations explode, because the species had developed another survival strategy, something biologists call "high reproductive capacity." Gray partridge hens lay a lot of eggs; their clutches are among the largest among birds.

In normal circumstances, partridges are at great risk. They are ground nesters, and ground may be flooded, burned, tilled or grazed, all to the detriment of partridges. As a consequence, partridge populations are subject to boom and bust cycles.

It seems to me that this cycle is at a low point. I was surprised and pleased to see a group of a dozen birds one day last week. They were right where I'd expect to see them, on the margin of Grand Forks County Road 33.

A drive in the country is always an opportunity to see partridges.

Although the partridge is an inconspicuous bird, it has a mythic history. Its scientific name, Perdix perdix, links it to Greek legend. In Anglo-Saxon England, the partridge became a Christian symbol. A text dating from the 10th century describes young partridges dispersing, then reuniting with their flock, a metaphor for repentant sinners.

How a smallish, chicken-like bird became associated with a midwinter religious holiday is a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, the gray partridge is emblematic of the season, at least to me. It was a lesson my father taught.

After the chores were done on Christmas morning, my father took me to the granary, and we spread a shovelful of oats on the driveway. "Christmas dinner for the birds," he said, and standing in the snow watching the partridges was always a special part of Christmas.