During the 20th century, no fewer than six species of game birds were released on PEI with hopes they would establish. The most extensive efforts and investments were reserved for Hungarian (aka Grey) Partridge (Perdix perdix, Photo 1 by Donna Martin used with permission). This interesting part of the Island’s natural history deserves its own chapter.
By 1900, PEI’s forest area had been reduced to a mere one-third of the Island and human population was at an all-time high. Virtually all the Island’s large animals had been extirpated, and there were concerns about the scarcity of game that remained, specifically our native Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellatus). In 1921, an Islander living out west wrote of the recent successful introduction of Hungarian Partridge to Alberta and suggested that province would help the east do the same. Local interest grew, and on October 27, 1927, 10 pairs of Huns were released near the old quarry on Mount Edward Road (between today’s Pine and Oak Drives in Charlottetown).
The original birds were flown from the Czech Republic to England, sailed to Halifax and then transported to PEI for a cost of $126 (more than $2,800 today). Local sportsman initiated this first shipment, but the Provincial Department of Agriculture soon got on board and an additional 49 pairs from Europe and Western Canada were released on the Island between 1927 and 1931. As one might expect, poaching was a problem from the get-go, and in 1931 the PEI Fish & Game Association offered a hefty reward of $25 (about $670 today) for information leading to arrests (Photo 2).
Huns need access to seeds and grit in winter; heavy snow or ice will prevent them from feeding. The winter of 1933/34 was a hard one, and it was estimated that 80% of the birds didn’t survive, even though local farmers helped by feeding Huns and letting them shelter in henhouses. Huns have tremendous reproductive capacity – clutches of a dozen chicks are common and more than twice that are known – and they bounced back quickly. By 1935, Huns were doing well and by 1938 they were sufficiently abundant (some estimated as many as 200,000 birds) that the first hunting season opened.
Snow and ice weren’t the birds’ only enemies. They were easy prey for Owls, and one writer estimated 15,000 Huns were killed by Snowy Owls in the winter of 1938/39 (this was one of the reasons a bounty was placed on those majestic birds). Huns gathering grit along roadsides were hit by snowplows and those bedding down on rail lines by trains. Even lobster traps proved a hazard, and game officials asked fishermen to leave doors on the bottoms of stored traps open so Huns could escape. Perhaps the biggest threat during the 1940s was haymaking. Huns nest in hayfields, and some estimated as many as 50,000 eggs a year were lost to the mowers.
Despite all these threats, Huns thrived here in the 1940s and early 1950s. PEI was described as a ‘sportsman’s paradise’, written up in prestigious magazines and attracting hunters from across Canada and the US. The local reviews weren’t universally positive. Some farmers blamed Huns for causing an outbreak of pullorum in domestic poultry and spreading mustard seeds across the Province, and not all Island sportsmen appreciated the out-of-province hunting competition.
The winter of 1947/48 was another bad one, and Islanders stepped up their interventions to save the Huns. Grain and grit were dropped by air, thanks to help from Paul’s Flying Service. Farmers, schoolchildren, commercial travellers, and even the RCMP all pitched in to spread feed. This was repeated in 1949/50, 1951/52 and 1954/55. That latter winter, three tons of grain and grit were airdropped over Queens and Kings Counties and the PEI Fish and Game Association took out ads declaring an emergency (Photo 3). A freezing rain storm in January 1956 virtually wiped out the birds, and local experts believed the Hun population was at its lowest since the original introduction.
Despite better winters (and some re-stocking) in the years that followed, Huns didn’t recover as expected; the hunting season was closed in 1963. The Province asked the Canadian Wildlife Service to look into why the birds weren’t recovering and what, if anything, it should do. No clear cause was determined, although reduction in the area of farmland and increased intensity on the remaining area were suggested as contributing factors. No action beyond discontinuing the useless bounties on predators and continuing to monitor Hun numbers was recommended.
By 1964 the birds seemed to be making a comeback and the hunting season re-opened in 1966. PEI wasn’t going to return of the Hun heydays of the 1940s though, very likely due to the changes in landuse throughout the 20th century. Huns remain on the Island today, more commonly in Eastern Prince, Queens, and Western Kings counties than elsewhere. I’d love to be able to estimate the investment – both direct cash and volunteer efforts – put into this introduction over the years! Another part of PEI untamed.