The home of this great grey partridge, as big as a small goose, is the rocky but grassed slopes between the forests and the snows on the Himalayas ; its eastern limit is Kumaun, and it ranges on the west through Afghanistan, where it is called kabk-i-dara, to Central Asia.
Seen on its native heath, or rather turf, it looks, from its grey colour and orange legs, large size, and rather awkward gait, very like a goose; it also has other goose-like habits, feeding mostly on grass, though now and then scratching up a tasty bulb, and being eminently sociable, several old birds being seen together with a number of chicks ; while the sentinel perched on a stone ready to give warning to the pack is eminently reminiscent of the ways of wild geese. When on the wing, these birds fly well and often high, frequently crossing from one ridge to another, or travelling a mile at a time, and they are particularly conspicuous when in flight, owing to their pinion-quills being white except at the tips, while they keep up a continual whistle while flying. They habitually feed up-hill, walk slowly, and never run far; in fact they are not built for much sprinting, being thickset, short-legged birds and very heavy, the cock weighing up to six and a half pounds, and normally about five. The hen is not nearly so large, but still weighs between three or four pounds, and except for having no spurs, is just like the cock, both having the same chestnut-edged white bib and white breast, and chestnut streaks on the grey ground of the wings and sides.
Snow-cocks, often somewhat absurdly called snow-pheasants, for they are most obvious partridges in everything except size, avoid cover of any sort, but they are rather partial to rocks, and roost on the shelves of precipices at night. They like feeding on spots where sheep have been folded at night earlier in the year, as the grazing is better in such places ; and on cold, dull, and wet days keep on the feed all day, though warm bright weather makes them sluggish and disinclined to leave their rocky perches except at morning and evening. They are, indeed, essentially birds of the cold bleak heights, and few remain to breed on the Indian side of the Gangetic section of the mountains, the majority here apparently crossing the snows to nest in Chinese Tibet, though in Kunawar they are common at all seasons.
In September they appear between the woods and the snow,, and as winter draws on the heavy falls drive them down to ANY open hills they may find in the forest belt. Their migration seems to be made at night, and in mild winters hardly any come down ; 7,000 feet is about the limit in any case. Once settled on a hill, they stay till the end of March, and each pack has its own location, to which it appears to return every year. They will feed on young sprouting corn very readily, and eat other herbage besides grass, but only visit isolated patches of cultivation.
Generally speaking, they dislike a nearer approach than about eighty yards, and though they will merely walk off at first if approached from below, an intruder from above will make them take wing almost at once; while their vigilant sentries see to it that no advance is made unnoted. Generally speaking, therefore, they need a rifle to bring them to book, and as their ground is also frequented by burrhel and tahr, many people - find them rather a nuisance than otherwise, since when out with a rifle' men prefer the four-footed game, and the alarm-whistle of the birds startles these. Moreover, although such fine big birds, and usually very fat, they are indifferent eating at best, and often positively nasty, no doubt on account of some herbs or roots they eat. All birds with this attribute of occasional unpleasantness, by the way, ought to be drawn as soon as killed, as this often prevents the tainting of the flesh by the food which may have been eaten ; and in any case some natives will eat them, so that shooting them is not by any means wanton destruction.
Their chief enemy appears to be the golden eagle, but as he prefers, according to Wilson's excellent account of this species, to take his game sitting, and the snow-cock naturally does not wait for this, but flies off before his tyrant stoops, he does not often get one. But this may only apply to the young eagle, the ring-tail as Wilson calls it, from the banded appearance of the tail, which has a white base in the young; no doubt the older birds learn by practice to catch their prey flying, and in fact I have read somewhere a description of such a chase in which the eagle used his advantage of height to drop on the flying snow-cock before the victim had got up full speed.
The comparatively few birds which breed on the Indian side of the Himalayas nest from 12,000 feet upwards to the snows, making a " scrape " in some spot well sheltered from rain. The eggs are not unlike turkeys' eggs, but darker and greener in the ground-colour, an olive or brownish stone-colour in fact, with fine brown spots. Five is the usual clutch, and when more are seen it is to be suspected that two pairs have " pooled " their broods, though many pairs separate and bring up their young by themselves in the usual manner of partridges. The eggs are generally laid by the end of May, but sometimes not till early in July. This conspicuous bird naturally has many names : Huinwal in Kumaun, Kubuk or Gourkagu in Kashmir, Leep in Kulu, and Kullu, Lupu, or Baera in 'Western Nepal, though the bird is not actually found in Nepal itself; the Mussoori hillmen's name, Jer-moonal, implies a recognition of the relationship of this great partridge to the short-tailed so called pheasants of the tragopan and the monaul groups.