Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Virginian Partridge

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Ornithological Biography by John James Audubon
The Virginian Partridge
76 Virginian Partridge.jpg

THE VIRGINIAN PARTRIDGE.

perdix virginiana, Lath.

PLATE LXXVI. Male, Female, and Young.


The common name given to this bird in the Eastern and Middle Districts of our Union is that of Quail, but in the Western and Southern States, the more appropriate appellation of Partridge is bestowed upon it. It is abundantly met with in all parts of the United States, but more especially towards the interior. In the States of Ohio and Kentucky, where they are very abundant, they are to be seen in the markets, both dead and alive, in large quantities.

This species performs occasional migrations from the north-west to the south-east, usually in the beginning of October, and somewhat in the manner of the Wild Turkey. For a few weeks at this season, the northwestern shores of the Ohio are covered with flocks of Partridges. They ramble through the woods along the margin of the stream, and generally fly across towards evening. Like the Turkeys, many of the weaker Partridges often fall into the water, while thus attempting to cross, and generally perish; for although they swim surprisingly, they have not muscular power sufficient to keep up a protracted struggle, although, when they have fallen within a few yards of the shore, they easily escape being drowned. I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water. As soon as the Partridges have crossed the principal streams in their way, they disperse in flocks over the country, and return to their ordinary mode of life.

The flight of these birds is generally performed at a short distance from the ground. It is rapid, and is continued by numerous quick flaps of the wings for a certain distance, after which the bird sails until about to alight, when again it flaps its wings to break its descent. When chased by dogs, or started by any other enemy, they fly to the middle branches of trees of ordinary size, where they remain until danger is over. They walk with ease on the branches. If they perceive that they are observed, they raise the feathers of their head, emit a low note, and fly off either to some higher branch of the same tree, or to another tree at a distance. When these birds rise on wing of their own accord, the whole flock takes the same course; but when put up (in the sportsman's phrase), they disperse, after alighting call to each other, and soon after unite, each running or flying towards the well-known cry of the patriarch of the covey. During deep and continued snows, they often remain on the branches of trees for hours at a time.

The usual cry of this species is a clear whistle, composed of three notes; the first and last nearly equal in length, the latter less loud than the first, but more so than the intermediate one. When an enemy is perceived they immediately utter a lisping note, frequently repeated, and run off with their tail spread, their crest erected, and their wings drooping, towards the shelter of some thicket or the top of a fallen tree. At other times, when one of the flock has accidentally strayed to a distance from its companions, it utters two notes louder than any of those mentioned above, the first shorter and lower than the second, when an answer is immediately returned by one of the pack. This species has moreover a love-call, which is louder and clearer than its other notes, and can be heard at a distance of several hundred yards. It consists of three distinct notes, the two last being loudest, and is peculiar to the male bird. A fancied similarity to the words Bob White renders this call familiar to the sportsman and farmer; but these notes are always preceded by another, easily heard at a distance of thirty or forty yards. The three together resemble the words Ah Bob White. The first note is a kind of aspiration, and the last is very loud and clear. This whistle is seldom heard after the breeding season, during which an imitation of the peculiar note of the female will make the male fly towards the sportsman, who may then easily shoot it.

In the Middle Districts, the love-call of the male is heard about the middle of April, and in Louisiana much earlier. The male is seen perched on a fence-stake, or on the low branch of a tree, standing nearly in the same position for hours together, and calling Ah Bob White at every interval of a few minutes. Should he hear the note of a female, he sails directly towards the spot whence it proceeded. Several males may be heard from different parts of a field challenging each other, and should they meet on the ground, they fight with great courage and obstinacy, until the conqueror drives off his antagonist to another field.

The female prepares a nest composed of grasses, arranged in a circular form, leaving an entrance not unlike that of a common oven. It is placed at the foot of a tuft of rank grass or some close stalks of corn, and is partly sunk in the ground. The eggs are from ten to eighteen, rather sharp at the smaller end, and of a pure white. The male at times assists in hatching them. This species raises only one brood in the year, unless the eggs or the young when yet small have been destroyed. When this happens, the female immediately prepares another nest; and should it also be ravaged, sometimes even a third. The young run about the moment after they make their appearance, and follow their parents until spring, when, having acquired their full beauty, they pair and breed.

The Partridge rests at night on the ground, either amongst the grass or under a bent log. The individuals which compose the flock form a ring, and moving backwards, approach each other until their bodies are nearly in contact. This arrangement enables the whole covey to take wing when suddenly alarmed, each flying off in a direct course, so as not to interfere with the rest.

These birds are easily caught in snares, common dead-falls, traps and pens like those for the Wild Turkey, but proportionate to the size of the bird. Many are shot, but the principal havock is effected by means of nets, especially in the Western and Southern States. The method employed is as follows:

A number of persons on horseback, provided with a net, set out in search of Partridges, riding along the fences or briar-thickets, which the birds are known to frequent. One or two of the party whistle in imitation of the second call-note above described, and as Partridges are plentiful, the call is soon answered by a covey, when the sportsmen immediately proceed to ascertain their position and number, seldom considering it worth while to set the net when there are only a few birds. They approach in a careless manner, talking and laughing as if merely passing by. When the birds are discovered, one of the party gallops off in a circuitous manner, gets in advance of the rest by a hundred yards or more, according to the situation of the birds, and their disposition to run, while the rest of the sportsmen move about on their horses, talking to each other, but at the same time watching every motion of the Partridges. The person in advance being provided with the net, dismounts, and at once falls to placing it, so that his companions can easily drive the Partridges into it. No sooner is the machine ready, than the net-bearer remounts and rejoins the party. The sportsmen separate to a short distance, and follow the Partridges, talking and whistling, clapping their hands, or knocking upon the fence-rails. The birds move with great gentleness, following each other, and are kept in the right direction by the sportsmen. The leading bird approaches and enters the mouth of the net, the others follow in succession, when the net-bearer leaps from his horse, runs up and secures the entrance, and soon dispatches the birds. In this manner, fifteen or twenty Partridges are caught at one driving, and sometimes many hundreds in the course of a day. Most netters give liberty to a pair out of each flock, that the breed may be continued.

The success of driving depends much on the state of the weather. Drizzly rain or melting snow are the best, for in such weather Partridges and Gallinaceous Birds in general will run to a great distance rather than fly; whereas if the weather be dry and clear, they generally take to wing the moment they discover an intruder, or squat so that they cannot be driven without very particular care. Again, when the flocks are found in the woods, they run off so briskly and so far, that it is difficult for the net-bearer to place his machine in time.

The net is cylindrical, thirty or forty feet in length, by about two in diameter, excepting at the mouth or entrance, where it is rather larger, and at the extremity, where it assumes the form of a bag. It is kept open by means of small wooden hoops, at a distance of two or three feet from each other. The mouth is furnished with a semicircular hoop, sharpened at both ends, which are driven into the ground, thus affording an easy entrance to the birds. Two pieces of netting called wings, of the same length as the cylindrical one, are placed one on each side of the mouth, so as to form an obtuse angle with each other, and are supported by sticks thrust into the ground, the wings having the appearance of two low fences leading to a gate. The whole is made of light and strong materials.

The Virginian Partridge is easily kept in cages or coops, and soon becomes very fat. Attempts at rearing them from the eggs have generally failed, probably for want of proper care, and a deficiency of insects, on which the young feed. The ordinary food of the species consists of seeds of various kinds, and such berries as grow near the surface of the ground, along with which they pick up a quantity of sand or gravel. Towards autumn, when the young have nearly attained their full size, their flesh becomes fat, juicy and tender, and being moreover white and extremely agreeable to the palate, is in much request. Twenty years ago, they were commonly sold at twelve cents the dozen; but now they are more commonly sold at fifty cents. They suffer greatly in the Middle Districts during severe winters, and are killed in immense numbers.

This bird has been introduced into various parts of Europe, but is not much liked there, being of such pugnacious habits as to drive off the common Grey Partridge, which is considered a better bird for the table.

In the Plate I have represented a group of Partridges attacked by a Hawk. The different attitudes exhibited by the former cannot fail to give you a lively idea of the terror and confusion which prevail on such occasions.


Perdix virginiana, Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 650—Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 124.

Tetrao virginianus, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 277.

Quail or Partridge, Perdix virginiana, Wils. Americ. Ornith. vol. vi. p. 21. Pl. 47. fig. 2. Male.


Adult Male. Plate LXXVI. Fig. 1, 1, 1, 1.

Bill short, robust, rather obtuse, the base covered by feathers; upper mandible with the dorsal outline curved, the sides convex, the edges overlapping, the tip declinate; under mandible nearly straight in its dorsal outline, arched on the edges, the sides convex. Nostrils concealed among the feathers. Head and neck of ordinary size. Body short and bulky. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus anteriorly scutellate, a little compressed, spurless; toes scutellate above, pectinate on the sides; claws arched, obtuse.

Plumage compact, glossy. Feathers of the upper part of the head erectile into a tuft. Wings short, broad, much curved and rounded, the fourth quill longest. Tail short, rounded, of twelve rounded feathers. Bill dark brown. Iris hazel. Feet greyish-blue. The forehead, a broad line over each eye and the throat and fore-neck, white. Lore, auricular coverts, and a broad irregular semilunar band on the fore-neck, more or less black. Upper part of the head, hind and lower part of the neck all round, reddish-brown. Upper back and wing-coverts bright brownish-red; the lower part of the back light red tinged with yellow. Primaries dusky, externally margined with blue; secondaries irregularly barred with light red. Tail greyish-blue, excepting the middle feathers, which are dull greyish-yellow, sprinkled with black. Sides of the neck spotted with white. Under parts white, streaked with brownish-red, transversely and undulatingly barred with black. Sides and under tail-coverts reddish.

Length 10 inches, extent of wings 15; bill along the back 1/2, along the gap 7/12; tarsus 1/4, middle toe nearly the same.


Young Male. Plate LXXVI. Fig. 2, 2.

Similar to the adult male in the general distribution of the colours; but the white of the head and throat bright reddish-yellow, the black of the fore-neck and sides of the head deep brown, the under parts less pure and more dusky, and the tail of a duller grey.


Adult Female. Plate LXXVI. Fig. 3, 3, 3.

The female resembles the young male, but is more decidedly coloured, the bill darker, the head of a more uniform and richer reddish-yellow, the sides of the neck spotted with yellow and black.

Length 91/2 inches, extent of wings 14.


Young Female. Plate LXXVI. Fig. 4, 4. 4.

The young females are somewhat smaller and lighter in their tints than the young males.


Very Young Birds. Plate LXXVI. Fig. 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5.

Bill brownish-yellow. Iris light hazel. The general colour of the upper parts light yellowish-brown, patched with grey; sides of the head dusky.