Barbary Partridge


Alectoris barbara (Bonnaterre) / Barbary Partridge / Perdiz Moruna.

It is unknown whether this species was an original component of the Rock’s avifauna or whether it was introduced  by man.  The question is perhaps best left open in view of the fact that a number of other North African species figure in the Rock’s fauna and flora and are absent from the Spanish hinterland.  Although it is likely that it was introduced to the Rock, as assumed by Lifor (1866), Seoane (1870), Berris (1964) and Valrie (1965) the only evidence for this is circumstantial.  The Governor’s Order Book records that the importation of “game from Barbary” for shooting purposes was authorised in 1749 by General H.Bland, then Governor of Gibraltar.  This introduction did not definitely include partridges but the possibility arises that the species was introduced by man then or that an indigenous population was reinforced by birds from Morocco.  Alectoris partridges were present during the late Pleistocene but their specific identity has not been established conclusively.

The first recorded observations of Barbary Partridges at Gibraltar are those of Rev.John White in 1771 (or Holt-White 1901).  The species then ranged widely over the Rock but now it has a restricted distribution, chiefly in the less disturbed areas of the Upper Rock, Windmill Hill and the slopes above Catalan Bay.  The typical habitat is low scrub and open rocky slopes.  It is resident with a population of about 30 pairs.  Coveys of up to 25 birds form outside the breeding season.

The species is sedentary, but a number of observations from Spain near Gibraltar (Gonzalo-Diez 1958, Trigo de Yarto 1960, Nisbet1960 b. Brosse & Jacquernard-Brosse 1962, and J Croxell pers.comm.) suggest that some dispersal from the Rock may have occurred.  Such a range expansion would have been easier for partridges in the past.  When the isthmus was entirely vegetated and the urban belt of La Linea was absent, but it is probably still possible for partridges to leave the Rock, although this has never been observed and would be a rare occurrence if it happens at all.  It seems most probable that Barbary Partridges seen in Spain near the Rock were originally directly introduced to Spanish Estates.

Source: The Birds of Gibraltar by John E Cortes, J Clive Finlayson, Ernest F J Garcia, Mario A J Mosquera.

A REPRIEVE FOR THE ROCK’S PARTRIDGES

Building a satellite ground station on prime nesting sites, should spell disaster for the Rock’s declining population of Barbary Partridges but an agreement between the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society and project developer ASC Systems could have Gibraltar’s Barbary Partridges clucking in glee.

The shy partridges already had to put up with military exercises, an increasing number of feral cats and dogs walked by some private individuals on their stronghold of Windmill Hill Flats, so the proposed development of a satellite ground station by ASC Systems, resulting in the loss of habitat from two pairs of partridges, could well have been the final straw.

But following hard negotiations, the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society has obtained an 'inprinciple' agreement from ASC for the funding of a Barbary Partridge recovery programme and the creation of new partridge habitat to compensate for this loss.

The programme, which will involve clearing vegetation on the Upper Rock and captive breeding of local partridges for release into the wild will cost in the region of 60,000 pounds over four years.  After many years of being squeezed into ever decreasing habitat, this is good news indeed for this timid bird which will often run for cover rather than taking flight.

The Barbary Partridge, Alectoris Barbara, belongs to the family Phasianidae, and is distinguished from other partridges by its blue-grey bib framed with chestnut brown.  It is described as having 'a brown crown/ventral nape which shows up well on raising, resembling a Mohican haircut'.  The partridge’s plump body and short bill are typical of Gallinaceous birds, which include pheasants and grouse.  Gibraltar’s Barbary Partridge will never be prized for its song which is described as a 'series of shrill, broken monosyllable clucks with interposed double notes'.  Its meat however might be a little more appealing to some, and that is possibly how the birds originally came to the Rock.

Predominantly a North African species, Gibraltar is the only mainland European location for a self sustaining wild population (they are also found offshore in the Canaries and Sardinia).

It is unclear whether the birds were imported during the Moorish occupation of the Rock, brought over by the British in the mid 1700s as part of a consignment of 'game from Barbary' or if the population is indigenous.  Possibly the answer lies with a combination of all three.  Fossil remains of Alectoris partridges dating from the late Pleistocene epock ( 1.6 to 0.01 million years ago)  have been found on the Rock, but it is possible that these birds were ancestors of the red-legged partridge.  Alectoris rifa, which is common in Spain but not found in Gibraltar.

Genetic Research as part of the programme agreed with ASC Systems is planned to try to determine whether the Gibraltarian Barbary Partridges are genetically different from the population in North Africa and elsewhere and this should establish their origins.  The first record of Barbary Partridges on the Rock was noted by the Reverend John White in 1771 and at this time they were well established in the open scrub of the Upper Rock which was kept clear by grazing goats. 

Their range and number have dwindled in recent years as a result of several factors.  The first is loss of open vegetation due to the growth of dense scrub and woodland on the Rock.  This denies the birds their preferred low scrub for nesting and open ground for foraging.  Disturbances, illegal catching of young and heavy predation by feral cats has worsened the situation even further to the point that perhaps only 30 pairs remain.

It is hoped that the GONHS ACS programme will go some way to restoring the Barbary Partridge population of 200 years ago.

 

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