Partridge – Day 24 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Partridge – קֹרֵא (qore)

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) Image: The Wildlife Trusts. Source: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/gamebirds/red-legged-partridge

Partridges are resident in much of Britain (but especially the eastern side). Altough the grey partridge (Perdix perdix) has been placed on the RSPB Red List, the larger, red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) is more common. It was introduced from Europe and appears to be establishing well. Partridges are ground-loving birds, so look for their scurrying little bodies on the ground. If they are in the air, something has ‘spooked them.’ They are game birds and sort for their flesh. Their propensity to be reluctant and fairly weak fliers, make them ideal as ‘sport’ birds and the partridge shooting season runs throughout winter, from 1st September to 1st February.

The ‘caller’

The Hebrew word for the partridge is קֹרֵא (qore) meaning a ‘caller’. This must be a reference to its distinctive, rather harsh, call particularly when frightened (United Bible Societies, 1980:64).

Red-legged Partridge · Alectoris rufa. Stanislas Wroza, XC474030. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/474030. Red-legged Partridge · Alectoris rufa.

Bright (2006:239) notes that, unlike the UK where there is a tendency to associate this bird with arable land, the partridges referred to in the Bible are found in the more rocky and desolate areas; scrub-land, often referred to as ‘wilderness’. Tristram (1898) paints a vivid picture of the bird in its habitat and its distinctive, ‘ringing call’:

In every part of the hill country, whether wooded or bare, it abounds, and its ringing call-note in early morning echoes from cliff to cliff alike amidst the barrenness of the wilderness of Judaea, and in the glens of the forest of Carmel. The male birds will stand erect on some boulder, sending their cheery challenge to some rival across the wad y, till, the moment they perceive themselves detected, they drop down from their throne, and scud up the hill faster than any dog, screening themselves from sight by any projecting rock as they run.

Tristram (1898:226)
Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar), near Ha-Teomim cave, Israel. Image: מינוזיג – MinoZig Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alectoris_chukar_3_-_Israel.jpg

Most commentators agree that the biblical קֹרֵא (qore) refers to either the desert/sand partridge (Ammoperdix heyi) or the chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar). The United Bible Societies (1980:64) expresses a preference for the chukar, arguing that “[it] was a favourite game bird in Biblical times.” Unfortunately this is not attested. It is the larger of the two and so would make a more suitable food source. France (1986:123) agrees that the chukar is a likely candidate, but also notes that the smaller sand or desert partridge is rather more common. Bright (2006:239) adds one further candidate, the rock partridge (Alectoris graeca), but remains agnostic as to which species qore denotes. As we have seen in earlier posts, it is more than possible that differentiation between species was not considered important.

Bird of odd behaviour

The qore is a game bird and we know that it formed a part of the diet during this period (see Borowski, 1998:151). For example, partridge bones (possibly those of the chukar) have been recovered from Iron Age I settlements on Mount Ebal (Borowski, 1985:222). It is therefore a little surprising that there is no mention of it in the food lists and that the only biblical references to it relate not to food but to its behaviour.

This is another example of the way in which the bible writer’s experience and knowledge of the natural world seeps into their work. As France (1986:121) argues that this also carried the assumption that the birds’ behaviour was “sufficiently well known” by its readers/hearers “for the image to be effective.”

Hunted quarry

Judean Wilderness. Image and source: https://www.bibleplaces.com/judeanwilderness/

The first reference is a text to which we have already been introduced (Flea – Day). It relates to the encounter between King David and King Saul in the wilderness of Ziph, the mountainous region around Engedi. During this meeting (see post on the flea for more detail), David calls out to Saul, saying:

Now, therefore, do not let my blood fall to the ground, away from the presence of the Lord; for the king of Israel has come out to seek a single flea, like one who hunts a partridge in the mountains.’

1 Samuel 26:20

Like their European relatives, the partridges of this area are particularly noted for their reluctance to take to the wing, even in times of danger, preferring instead to dash from bush to bush or between outcrops (see France (1986:121).

This characteristic gives rise to a particular form of hunting where a throw-stick is used. This is a, usually carved, wooden stick that is used to bring down a running or flying bird. Tristram (1898) provides a colourful account of throw-stick hunting that he observed while traveling with Bedouin:

The weapon is a stick about eighteen inches long and half an inch in diameter, which is hurled with a revolving motion so as to strike the legs of the bird as it runs, or, more frequently, at a little higher elevation, so that when the game, alarmed at the approach of the missile, begins to take wing, it is struck and slightly disabled. The pursuers let fly a rapid succession of sticks, and generally finish the chase by flinging their cloak over the quarry, which is always despatched by cutting the throat, after the Mohammedan injunction, which, following the Jewish law, forbids the eating of any flesh with the blood in it . Even should the bird be killed at first, the operation of cutting the throat is always performed, or it would be unclean.

Tristram (1898:162)
Egyptian throw-stick (c. 2055 – 1773 BCE: Dynasty 11 – 12). Imag4e: National Museums Liverpool. Source: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/collections/antiquities/ancient-egypt/item-295878.aspx

Harris (1824) reads this metaphor literally, asserting that:

“Precisely in this manner Saul hunted David, coming hastily upon him, putting him up incessantly, in hopes that at length his strength and resources would fail, and he would become an easy prey to his pursuer.”

Harris (1824:307)
Marsh hunting scene showing Nebamun hunting with throw-stick. Nebamun tomb c.1350 BCE. Image: British Museum http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/british%20museum/nebamun/

Bad egg(s)?

The second reference to the partridge is a little more perplexing and can be read in a number of ways.

Like the partridge hatching what it did not lay,
   so are all who amass wealth unjustly;
in mid-life it will leave them,
   and at their end they will prove to be fools. 

Jeremiah 17:11 (NRSV)

The focus here is also on the particular behavior the the partridge. However, what that practice actually is (and therefore what lessons we should learn from it) is open to question.

The majority reading in English versions present the partridge as a ‘dishonest’ bird. One that steals other partridge’s eggs and then tries to hatch them as their own.

  • New International Version: Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay
  • Jubilee Bible 2000: As the partridge that steals that which she did not hatch
  • Christian Standard Bible: He who makes a fortune unjustly is like a partridge that hatches eggs it didn’t lay.
  • Good News Bible: The person who gets money dishonestly is like a bird that hatches eggs it did not lay.
  • New English Translation: The person who gathers wealth by unjust means is like the partridge that broods over eggs but does not hatch them. 

The lesson is clear: Someone who attempts to mass wealth unjustly (stealing, extortion, etc.) is like the partridge that steals other birds eggs, they will eventually both share the same disappointment, frustration and humiliation.

It is very unclear where this idea that a partridge ‘steals’ other partridges eggs arose. France (1986:122) points to “an Arab belief” that the hen bird lays two clutches of eggs in two nests, one of which is then hatched by the cock bird. This is also recorded in the United Bible Societies (1980:64). Unfortunately both are unattested. It has been observed that for among some species of birds (for example, starlings and woodpeckers) that the male takes an active role in sharing the task of incubating the eggs with the female. In fact the role of incubation and hatching is the sole responsibility of the male partner in polyandrous species, like the phalarope (see, Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, 1988). As far as I can establish this behaviour does not extend to the partridge – although I’d be really interested to hear differently.

Even if this was the case and we should read Jeremiah 17:11 as referring to the cock partridge, it is not clear why he should be unsuccessful and that the eggs do not hatch.

Stolen eggs?

An alternative reading is offered when we look at the Authorised Version of this verse. Here, we read:

As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not

Jeremiah 17:11a (KJV)

The inference here is of the frustration and loss of nurturing eggs that do not come to ‘full term’. From his observations in the field, this appears to be the reading preferred by Tristram (1898)

It has been asserted that the Partridge steals the eggs of other birds and covers them herself, and hence the passage has been interpreted “gatherer young which she has not brought forth.” But it is not the case that the Partridge steals the broods of others. The natural interpretation is the true one. The Partridge lays a very large number of eggs (I once took a nest of twenty-six in the wilderness of Judaea), but she has many enemies—man not the least destructive—who hunt for her nest, and rob her of her eggs. The eggs of the Partridge are sought for assiduously by the Arabs, and used for food. They are easily found, and the quantity destroyed annually is amazing. We had in one spring in Palestine about 800 eggs of the Greek Partridge (Caccabis saxatilis) brought to our camp, and were in the habit of using those that were fresh for omelettes daily.

Tristram (1898:225)

In this respect, Jeremiah seems to be referring to the frustration of the partridge whose eggs have been stolen from her (by humans).

One further possible explanation is offered by France (1986:122) and Bright (2006:240) who both cite Memoirs of a Jewish Zoologist by Israel Ahrani. This books describes the tendency of partridges to nest in close proximity. Sometimes this results in one partridge driving off another and then attempting to incubate them all (as many as 30). Being small, she is physically incapable of maintaining the required temperature for the entire clutch and so a number of eggs fail to hatch. I have not come across any other references to this behaviour, but it would help to explain the (mistaken) belief that the partridge steals another bird’s eggs and then, subsequently, is unable to successfully hatch them all. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate either title or author and think they might be referring to Israel Aharoni (1943) Memories of a Hebrew Zoologist.

Partridge in a cage

Although not part of the canonical Bible, for those who have Bibles that contain the deuterocanonical books (or Apocrypha), there is one further reference to the partridge. This also gives us another small glimpse into the world of the Bible writers.

The reference appears in the book of Sirach (some may be more familiar with the title of Ecclesiasticus).

Like a decoy partridge in a cage,
so is the mind of the proud,
and like spies they observe your weakness.

Sirach 11:30 (NRSV)

Hunters know the value of a decoy, whether it is a plastic model in the shape of a bird (ducks are often used) to indicate to other birds that the territory is safe, or whether it is the use of sound, whistling or using bird-callers, to entice a bird closer. This text refers to the use of live birds captured in a cage to call out and attract others to it where they can be hunted – a practice which is still used in some parts of the world.

This practice is also alluded to Jeremiah 5 where the author’s wonderful use of imagery is used to devastating effect:

Like fowlers they set a trap;
   they catch human beings. 
27 Like a cage full of birds,
   their houses are full of treachery;

Jeremiah 5:26b-27 (NRSV)

Tristram (1898) noted that this was a very common way of hunting in the 19th century Mediterranean:

The employment of decoy birds is very common, and much pains are taken to train the decoys for their treacherous office. They are carefully tended till perfectly tame, that they may not be deterred by the neighbourhood of man from uttering their call-note. Larks, linnets, pigeons, quails, and especially partridges, are employed in this mode of fowling. The bird is placed in a cage, partly concealed, while the fowler remains carefully under cover in the neighbourhood, where he can manage his snares and nets. In the case of larks, the cage is placed on the open ground, surrounded with syringes or horse-hair nooses, which entangle the feet of the incautious and too curious visitors. For other small birds it is placed in a thicket, while the sportsman is ready with his net to throw over them when they alight. Sometimes great numbers are taken in a few hours, as the birds will descend in large flocks. Partridges and quails are more generally captured by long, narrow runs, carefully formed of brushwood, leading to the cage in which the decoy bird is concealed. The run, like the decoy used for wildfowl in this country, gradually contracts, till it ends in a bag-net thrown over the pathway, in which whole coveys are rapidly captured wholesale. The mountaineers of Lebanon are very skilful in this mode of fowling, and I have seen them often capture whole broods before they could fly, when the chicks are brought up by hand, either for food, or to serve as decoys in turn themselves.

Tristram (1898: 163-164)
Red-legged Partridge. RSPB.
Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge

References

Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.

Ehrlich, P.R., Dobkin, D.S. and Wheye, D. (1988) Who incubates? Available at https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Who_Incubates.html (Accessed 18/06/2019)

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Harris, T.M. (1824) The natural history of the Bible ; or, A description of all the quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, trees, plants, flowers, gums, and precious stones, mentioned in the sacred scriptures: Collected from the best authorities, and alphabetically arranged. London: T. Tegg.

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.

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