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It is said to be Sicily's only unique native bird, a Sicilian subspecies that never flies off to vacation in Greece, Africa or mainland Italy, where there are partridges of the same species. Alectoris Graeca Whitakeri actually thrives in Sicily's rugged bushlands. The subspecies' formal name derives, in part, from that of the Whitaker family, a member of which is said to have first identified the subtle differences in feather markings of the Sicilian birds from those of Appenine, Alpine and Greek partridges. With several other English families, the Whitakers were influential in establishing the Marsala wine industry, and were patrons of the arts, archeological research and nature preservation. An interest in the Sicilian rock partridge, however, was rooted more in hunting than in birdwatching. Rock partridge are delicious.
The rock partridge is part of the Phasianidae family, which includes pheasants, quails and certain birds sometimes identified taxonomically as grouses. The "woodcock" referred to, in English translation, in The Leopard were, presumably rock partridge (coturnice in Italian), though true woodcock belong to a different family entirely. Owing to literary descriptions, there is much confusion about game birds' true identities; partridge comes from the Latin perdix and refers to various short-tailed game birds having brownish plumage and stocky bodies.
The adult rock partridge is around 35 centimetres (almost 14 inches) long, weighing up to 700 grams. Colouring and plumage of males and females are essentially similar. In most cases the adult male birds select a single mate with which to share the mating season. The male is known for its distinctive morning song, which serves the purpose of calling other partridges to join it.
The rock partridge lives throughout Sicily, and enjoys a wide variety of foods, including various stalks and seeds, and even certain bulbs and tubers. It also likes ants, various large arthropods and, occasionally, mantises and grasshoppers. The bird's diet varies according to season.
Hunting of the rock partridge is restricted. That's good for the hunted as well as the hunters; in Sicily the opening days of hunting season bring with them a disproportionally high number of serious injuries from avoidable shooting accidents. Incidents to avoid, certainly, but nothing worth getting your feathers ruffled over.
About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino is active in wildlife preservation throughout Sicily. He has written about the purple swamp hen and wild cat for previous issues.