Through most of the year the gray partridge moves unseen through the bunchgrasses on the higher ridges surrounding Yakima. Winter snow makes it harder for this “chicken” to hide and only then does it become much easier to spot.
Native to Europe and parts of Asia, the partridge was first introduced into the United States in the late 1700s as a game bird. In Washington, it was first released in the late 1800s and has become established east of the Cascades in open country.
Eastward across North America, gray partridges are common in the northern Great Plains states and the prairie provinces of Canada.
How to spot one: Few people except game bird hunters see this elusive species, except in winter when deep snow pushes it into view. It is a relatively quiet bird, too, calling odd, scratchy notes only at dawn or dusk, or when flushed. If seen, it is somewhat similar to the chukar, another introduced gamebird.
Both have rufous coloration in their tails, only visible in flight. On the rare occasions you get a good look, note the orange patch on its head, gray neck and breast, and especially the bold streaks on its sides, with a dark belly patch.
Where and when: In southcentral Washington, look for the gray partridge on the north-facing flanks of all the Yakima Fold Belt ridges, as well as grassier parts of the Cascade foothills. Why north aspects of the ridges? These slopes have much greater soil moisture through the dry and hot summer and have resisted the onslaught of weedy invasives, especially cheatgrass, retaining their native cover of bunchgrasses. Chukars favor rocky slopes, especially those mantled in the introduced cheatgrass, which is very important in their winter diet.
Elsewhere, look for partridges adjacent to wheat fields in the Horse Heaven Hills and widely all across eastern Washington in similar farm country. The Yakima Training Center (which you can visit with a recreational permit) provides the greatest opportunity to view this species in our area.
Chow time: Seeds of grasses are taken all year, as is waste grain in wheat country. In spring and summer, tender green leaves are eagerly taken. The chicks, particularly when young, seek insect fare.
Home life: The male in courtship shows off its dark belly patch and streaked sides to a prospective mate who approaches slowly with its head bobbing. The nest is a very simple affair, a shallow bowl lined with grass and leaves in dense cover. The female lays a big clutch, usually 10-20 eggs but in rare exceptions up to 23 and begins incubating these after the last is laid. She alone incubates for 20-25 days.
All the eggs hatch at the same day. The chicks are precocial from the start and follow both parents to insect-rich areas in the grasslands and shrub-steppe. The young can take short flights after two weeks and are full-grown by four months. They stay with their parents through their first winter.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.