Ever since Kapil Dev brought home the World Cup in 1983, I’ve always heard the call of the grey francolin (nee partridge) as an exultant, “Kap-il Dev! Kap-il Dev! Kap-il Dev!” and, happily, this sprightly game bird is still hailing that historic victory. Officially, of course, they tell you that the males call, “Kateetar, kateetar, kateetar,” in a high-pitched tone; the hens start off with a repeated, “tee-tee-tee”, followed by a musical, “kila-kila-kila”, and then the pair may duet, “Kateela-kateela-kateela”. In most cases, you will hear the bird before seeing it — if you actually do.
If you do, it may give you the fright of your life. I’ve been spooked by them a number of times; there you are in a dry, spiky field, or even a rambling park, and you hear the bird calling. Somewhere ahead, it’s standing on tiptoe and cheerily greeting the morning. You sneak closer, trying to be as quiet as you can. You can’t see it. Obviously, it has ducked and covered — it’s, after all, a game bird. You creep on. Suddenly, the ground beneath your feet seems to explode. With a heart-stopping, “Bhhhrrrrr!” something rufous brown blows up in your face and then is away at top speed in a blurred flurry of feathers. If you have your wits still about you, you might spot the bird whirring off and then gliding into a thicket on short, cambered wings. Aha! So, now you know where it is. You sneak up and peer into the thicket. Nothing! And then, spot the fellow scampering off a good distance away, head down as if under fire.
Usually, of course, partridges prefer running to flying and they run swiftly and smoothly. If flushed several times by dogs or beaters, they might just stay stubbornly put on the ground — not a good thing for them.
But there’s a reason for this mulish behaviour: Game birds like the partridge have white flight muscles (hence the white meat) which are fuelled by the carbohydrate glycogen, which gives them the instant high-energy burst required for an instantaneous top-speed getaway. These muscles operate anaereobically — without the use of oxygen — and the waste products accumulate quickly, leading to fatigue. The birds just can’t fly. Long distance flyers, like geese and pigeons, burn fat while flying, which requires a good supply of oxygen in order to burn; this is provided by blood through a network of capillaries, which makes their meat dark.
Usually, francolin behave like fugitives on the run, probably because they’re so used to being shot at or chased by dogs and beaters. But, in some places where they are protected, they might just saunter jauntily up to you or cross the road just in front of you, knowing they are safe and you can get a good look at them. Usually, they wander around in pairs or small parties (called coveys), in their sprightly upright manner. Overall, about the size of a small hen, they are rufous brown, with a lighter pale biscuit basket weave pattern across their bodies and have a yellow throat patch and broken black collar called a gular loop. The males are armed with a sharp spur (sometimes two) on their legs, which is used for fighting.
These birds are great fighters — another reason which has made them dear to us. Partridge fights are organised all over the country, with much betting. These specially bred fighters may be double the weight of a normal country-bumpkin francolin.
Grey francolin are found all over the country, from the Himalayan foothills to down south. They like dry, scrubby areas, crop fields, large parks, etc . They’re omnivorous and eat seeds, shoots, berries, drupes, insects, small mammals, and even human excreta. They nest on the ground usually in summer (between March and September) and while only the mom incubates the eggs (four-nine), both parents take the chicks out on exploratory walks.
Our treatment of these cheerful birds has been abominable: we trap them en masse in low nets, by using decoys to call them. When raised by us, they are easily tamed and are trusting birds. They’ve been exported to the US as “exotic game birds”, which basically means to be shot.
While grey francolins are smart they have a knockout cousin, the black francolin, which saunters around the fields, hills and countryside in northern India. He’s jet black, stippled with gold, with vivid white cheek patches and wears a copper coloured collar. He will stand on tiptoe and cheerfully call: “Chik-chik-cheek-keeyak” which some hungry people have written down as “lehsun-pyaaz-adrak” (garlic-onion-ginger). He saunters around the edges of fields and, like his more plebian cousin, is omnivorous.
As I wrap up this piece, India have thumped Pakistan yet again in one of the World Cup matches. Somewhere in the parks, you can be sure that the grey partridge will be standing on a rock, cheering, “Ka-pil Dev, Ka-pil Dev, Ka-pil Dev!” so that we never forget.