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This series of Entries covers every non-native breeding bird in the UK as part of an online field guide. It will not cover budgerigars, cockatiels or canaries, or some other wildfowl such as bar-headed geese, muscovy ducks or other assorted exotics, as they are not deemed to be sustainable, if breeding in the wild in Britain at all. Non-native is defined as 'relating to, originating from, or having the characteristic of another place or part of the world, and having immigrated, or been introduced, from an area which is outside of its normal distribution range'.
The red-legged or French partridge, Alectoris rufa, is a short, upright, stocky, shy, colourful bird and is a popular game bird. The black and white face and black and white barring makes it quite distinctive when compared to the grey, or common, partridge. Unlike pheasants, another common game bird, it is a skulking bird, and is easily overlooked. It is most likely to be seen in the winter where it can be found picking over farmland for waste grain.
Like all living organisms, the red-legged partridge is classified according to its physical characteristics. This is known as its taxonomy. All birds share the same basic features:
- Kingdom: Animalia, meaning having life, sensation and voluntary motion.
- Phylum: Chordata, meaning having a notocord, which is the basis of having a spinal cord.
- Sub-Phylum: Vertebrata, meaning having a skeleton and an articulated backbone.
- Class: Aves, or birds, meaning: possessing a horny beak; no adult teeth; large muscular stomach and crop; feathers; yolked, hard-shelled eggs; and a strong, light skeleton.
The red-legged partridge is further classified as:
- Order: Galliformes, the megapodes, curassows, pheasants, quails, and relatives.
- Family: Phasianidae, a family of Old World quail, partridge and pheasant. There are 134 species, of which 15 are native in Europe, with at least two introduced species.
- Genus: Alectoris; there are seven species of this genus in the world.
This is a common, easily identified bird. It measures 32 - 34 cm with a wing span of 47 - 50 cm. The bird is larger and bulkier than its closest relative, the grey, or common, partridge. The bird has a red bill and legs. It has a very distinctive head with a buff crown, black eye stripe, with a white over-brow and usually a white throat necklace, merging into a black spotted bib. The breast is grey and the rump, buff. The flanks are grey, with heavily barred chestnut stripes and a brown back. The tail is also buff, with chestnut tail corners.
The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground in hedges or other scrub, sparsely lined with vegetation. The eggs are a spotted yellow-cream to buff and are laid in late April to May, with a clutch of ten to 16 being normal. Incubation takes 23 - 24 days. There is usually only one clutch, which the female broods, but if there is a second clutch, then the male broods that. The young are born active, and can fly at 10 days, and are fully mature at 60 days.
The birds are primarily vegetarian, eating seeds, leaves, roots and similar vegetation, but will also eat small invertebrates. The call is a harsh strident, staccato 'chuck.... chuck.... Chuck....chuckuck' or if disturbed, then 'CHUK - CHUK- CHUKURRR', usually followed by an eruption into fast frantic low flight. It is this that makes it a perfect game-bird. It is usually found on agricultural land, as well as heath, drained marshland and open woodland. It may also extend up to 2,000 metres on the side of mountains. It has spread from its native area in Iberia through France to the UK.
The red-legged partridge is believed to have been introduced by the Romans, but the first known records point to them being introduced into Britain from Spain, probably into Suffolk. This attempt, at some point pre-1700 and probably during the reign of Charles II, doesn't appear to have been successful. In 1770, another attempt was made, using chicken-reared birds from France1. This process involved bringing eggs into the country and using laying-hens to rear them until they became independent. They would then be released into an area set aside for shooting2 such as Windsor and Richmond. There is a possibility that this was due to over-hunting of the native grey, or common, partridge, Perdix perdix, although this is not certain. The population expanded, especially with the rise in popularity of hunting and shoots.
The red-legged partridge, like the pheasant, will not 'flush' easily when pursued by beaters3. It will attempt to run away and hide until, eventually, it has to rise to escape when it flies independently and rapidly, making it a good sporting game bird. Other game birds, such as some members of the grouse family, will lie still until flushed and then rise as a covey4, making for a less 'enjoyable' sport.
By 1930 there were extensive breeding programmes, creating a current population estimated at 170,000 breeding pairs. There has also been speculation that it competes with the grey partridge which has seen a drastic population crash, to the point that the grey is now listed as an endangered British bird. The causes seem more likely due to habitat loss, as the birds rarely occupy the same terrain and, where the grey and red-legged do intermix, the grey tends to be found in higher numbers.
The red-legged partridge is a popular bird, probably because of its vibrant colouration, and regularly appears on Christmas cards. Some believe it is the 'Partridge in a Pear Tree' made famous in the Christmas Carol, 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. However, there are no clear records of the red-legged partridge being a perching bird, where the grey partridge has been recorded roosting as high as 30 feet up in trees, making it the more likely bird.
Related Introduced Species
Chukar, Alectoris chukar
The chukar is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is the same size as the red-legged partridge, but the plumage is not as bright. The black eye stripe extends to create a distinctive black face bib, it has a creamier belly and sharper flash bars.
Rock Partridge, Alectoris graeca
This is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean, and north to south-east Europe and down the mountainous area of Italy. The only real distinguishing characteristics that differentiate the rock partridge from its relatives having crisper, cleaner head-markings and more yellow flanks.
Identification of both introductions are very difficult, and only familiarisation would distinguish the birds from the red-legged partridge. Introduction of both birds has been illegal since 1992, due to cross-breeding, and population numbers of both are unknown but perceived to be virtually nil.