column By: Lee J. Hoots | September, 19
Pinning down exactly when red-legged partridges, or chukars, were first brought to the U.S. is somewhat difficult due largely to the fact that some western states where they are hunted list no date of release, or only the date when seasons were opened for sport hunting. Research revealed that perhaps the very first birds were imported from modern day Pakistan in the early 1830s. To my knowledge, the earliest hunting literature describing chukars and chukar hunting dates back to the late 1930s.
Then as now, the plump partridge provided challenging wing shooting due mostly to the steep, arid, mid-to-high elevation habitat they call home; it’s dry, rocky and rough on man and dog. Therein lies the best reason to hunt them – the challenge of man against himself. Though it’s been too long since I’ve seriously pursued the brilliantly-marked birds with delicate white breast meat, they remain the “big game” of bird shooting. Chukars thrive in the Great Basin states. From the steep canyon walls carved by Idaho’s Snake River to the vertical rimrocks of southeastern Oregon and from the vast expanses of the Nevada backcountry to the dry desert mountains of the Mojave Desert, chukar country is unforgiving.
Across good chukar habitat, there are two directions of travel on foot: up or down. Rarely does a shrub grow taller than a man’s knees, the earth will cut through cheap boot soles without hesitation and exertion will challenge an upland hunter’s mental and physical toughness. Chukar hunting can only be likened to sheep hunting, in my experience. To hunt wild birds (not pen-raised birds) in the arid West is to test one’s self against some of the boldest desert terrain. It takes a dedicated wing shooter to get the most out of it. The blazing desert sun, shindaggers and other pointed scrub will not be ignored (nor will the occasional rattler), and the rugged relief of the country itself stacks the odds in the birds’ favor. The men and women I know who are dedicated desert partridge shooters are also serious mule deer hunters by default.
A hunter can and should count each fallen bird as a reward. Several years ago I had such a “rewarding” experience in the California desert. My buddy Jim Matthews, an occasional contributor to this magazine who spends a good deal of time on dusty desert back roads searching for upland game and mule deer, had located several coveys of chukar days before the season opened. Our plan was to get up early, take on some light hiking and bust a bunch of birds before lunchtime. Yeah, right! We bagged one or two birds before legal shooting hours rolled to a close.
Finding chukars is rarely as easy as spotting a roadside spring on a topographical map, driving as close to it as possible, then stepping out and taking a limit. But it can be.
One season when I still lived near good chukar habitat, the desert was drenched with late winter and spring rain. Grass grew tall, insects were plentiful and the chukars pulled off double and triple clutches. Life was good for the birds and hunting was excellent; every canyon and cliff rim seemed to hold a covey or two...sometimes three. My father and I hunted hard that season, adding eight or 10 birds to the freezer several Saturdays in a row.
At the same location the following year, there had been no brood-rearing rains. What was left were carryover adult birds that flushed wild and provided extremely challenging shooting. By noon, it was becoming hard to justify our presence in such rugged country. My water supply was better than half gone, my feet ached and the stock on my new Browning 28-gauge Citori was becoming more tattered with each 100-foot gain in elevation. If it wasn’t for the lingering shotgun blasts occasionally resonating across distant ridge tops, reminding us we were in good chukar country, we would have gone home. This went on for hours until the waning light of evening began to cast long shadows across the desert moonscape. On our last attempt to gun birds, feeble as it was, we hiked toward a known water source and on the way jumped a sizable covey. I busted the second bird I swung on, the only one we shot all day.
Chukars live mostly in the arid regions of the West, and water is obviously fundamental to their survival. Early in the season before the birds see much hunting pressure, water in any form – guzzlers, springs, stock tanks, seasonal creeks, pools – is generally where a hunter should begin searching for birds, but wildlife biologists have indicated chukars aren’t so tied to water as some hunters believe. “I’ve seen coveys of chukar 10 miles away from any known water source,” one biologist said.
I concentrate on water sources only during the first couple days of the season before there has been noticeable hunting pressure. From then on, I mainly focus on ridges and rimrocks that are covered in the birds’ favorite food source: cheat, a short nonnative grass that resembles wheat in both color and texture. Cheatgrass provides ample forage and any distant cheat-covered ridge is worth a hike.
It is best to hunt chukars from above because of the birds’ propensity for escaping danger by running ever higher (no human or coyote can keep up) or by gliding down into deep canyons and across wide valley floors. When hunters flush them from above, shots are likely. If flushed from below, all you will get is tired. Weather conditions can also dictate where the birds will be found.
I recall one blustery day when Dad and I walked and walked over familiar ridges and could find nothing. Then it occurred to my young, chapped-face self that if I didn’t like being out in the wind, neither did the birds. We came off the high ridgelines down into deep canyons and washes, and it worked. Perhaps 30 birds were put up in the first canyon and provided scattered shooting for another two hours or so. After a snowfall, another acquaintance heads straight for the snow line. As the snow thaws and inches up the mountains, the partridges follow. Having all the moisture they need, they follow the food source but stay as high on the mountain as possible.
A chukar call, which can be picked up in just about any sporting goods store in good chukar country for about $10, can be worth its weight in gold. Like a covey of valley quail that has just been disturbed, chukars almost immediately try to regroup by calling back and forth to each other. Using a call can help locate individual birds after a covey rise, and it can sometimes elicit a response from birds on a distant ridge that have otherwise been unnoticed.
As a kid, I saw chukar hunters using binoculars (and spotting scopes from their trucks) to find birds on distant ridgelines. I tried it, and to this day I have an older Swarovski SLC 10x42 WB binocular on hand for just that purpose, though it’s carried in a bird vest rather than around my neck. Any chukar man who takes his hunting seriously keeps a binocular handy and uses it like a mule deer hunter scanning pockets of cover for a big buck bedded under a distant outcrop. Chukars are small birds compared with the hugeness of their surroundings, but I’ve used binoculars to pick them out of rocky terrain and to find a rout to stalk them from above. Doing so has proven reliable now and then, particularly when the wind blows hard enough that the regal birds’ chuck, chuck, chuck calling cannot be heard. Just like muley hunting, you can’t shoot what you can’t find, another reason why chukars are the “big game” bird.