Hunting Chukars

hunting chukars
Chukars thrive best in arid high country where rocks, cheatgrass and sagebrush are common.

The chukar presents great challenges to the upland hunter. He is a bird who loves remote, rugged mountain country. The Chukar sprints like a roadrunner (always uphill), has eyes like an eagle and possesses the wariness of a fox.

This beautiful gamebird has, nevertheless, been a favored target of upland hunting enthusiasts for centuries, and is so beloved, upland hunters went to great trouble to transplant him from his Eurasian homeland to places as far away as New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States.

Decades of trials and efforts—and innumerable failures—were required to establish this outsider as a gamebird in the U.S. But the battle was won. Thanks to a handful of determined men, the chukar is now an important part of the American hunting scene.

Chukar Description

The Chukar gets their name from their most common notes, based on its rally call.

The chukar is not brightly colored like many birds, but is incredibly handsome, nevertheless. It is ash-gray overall but has light-colored flanks slashed with bold black bars. The cream-colored throat has an ebony necklace that curves upward to form a bandit’s mask through dark eyes encircled in red. Adult male chukars usually weigh slightly less than 1-1/2 pounds; females typically weigh just over 1 pound.

The name chukar (pronounced chucker) is simply the birds’ rally call, the most common of their varied notes. Biologist Allen Stokes described it thusly: “At low intensities the call is chuck, chuck, chuck, given slowly and with definite breaks between each call. As the intensity of the calling rises, it changes to per-chuck, per-chuck with accent on the second syllable, and it is given at faster tempo. This in turn gives way to chukar-chukar-chukar with accent on the first syllable. At highest intensity, and usually highest volume, the call becomes a three-syllable chuckara-chuckara-chuckara.” Several manufacturers make chukar calls that reproduce these sounds, encouraging scattered birds to call back so the upland hunter can find them.

Seeds and foliage of grasses (especially cheatgrass) are the chukar’s favorite foods, but it also eats shrub fruits, forbs and insects. The birds live in coveys of a few to more than 200 individuals, but usually 10 to 20.

Introduction of the Chukar to the U.S.

This is the only look at a chukar many hunters ever get: a bird perched on a mountaintop before it flies away down the opposite slope.

The chukar’s original range encompassed much of the Middle East, the former U.S.S.R. and parts of Greece, China, Nepal, Pakistan and India.

Dr. W.O. Blaisdell imported the first chukars to the U.S. from Karachi, Pakistan in 1893. All but two of these 10 birds died. He released young from the remaining pair near his home in Macomb, Illinois, but the birds never became established.

Bureau of Biological Survey records indicate only 54 chukars were imported into the U.S. between 1901 and 1911. But from the 1930s through the 1960s, thousands of chukars were released in nearly every state. Washington received its first birds in 1931, California in 1932, Idaho in 1933, Nevada in 1935, Utah in 1936, Wyoming in 1939 and British Columbia in 1950.

Introductions in states with poor habitat failed, but chukars did well in western high country. Nevada was the first to achieve success. A 2-day hunt there in 1947 was the first open season in the U.S. Washington was next in 1949, followed by Hawaii (1952), Idaho (1953), California (1954), Wyoming (1955), Oregon and Utah (1956), Colorado and British Columbia (1958) and Montana (1959).

Today, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho lead all other states in terms of chukar production and harvest. Eastern Oregon, northern Nevada and southwestern Idaho are the top regions. Huntable populations also exist in northeastern California and the Mojave Desert, eastern Washington, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana (primarily in Carbon County) and south-central British Columbia.

Chukar Habitat

Chukars are among the world’s most beautiful gamebirds.

Chukars don’t live in hospitable habitats. The more rugged and desolate, the better they like it. If the terrain grows nothing but sagebrush, cheatgrass and rocks, it’s almost perfect.

Established populations in North America live in dry, rocky, mountainous regions similar to the birds’ Eurasian mountain homelands. The living areas they prefer aren’t necessarily nosebleed territory, but the ground will be steep—what one hunter calls “a gravitational challenge.” Some birds range as far up as 12,000 feet above sea level.

Rimrock, the edges of rock falls and rock outcroppings are favored spots. Chukars use the rocky terrain for protection against the elements and predators.

Water is critical for chukar survival. Except during rainy periods, the birds drink twice daily, in morning and afternoon, from springs, catch basins, streams, man-made water holes or other sources.

Guns & Loads For Chukars

Western high country is typical chukar-hunting territory, but hunters also can enjoy chukar shooting on many shooting preserves around the country.

A 12 gauge is a terrific shotgun for shooting chukars, but by the end of the day, it can feel like you’re lugging a Howitzer up the slopes. Most chukar enthusiasts opt instead for a light 20 or 16 gauge, preferably a semiauto that will allow five shots if needed. Rounds three through five will account for many birds that might otherwise have escaped.

Changeable chokes are a good idea as the birds fly differently day to day. Sometimes they flush underfoot; sometimes they’re waving goodbye from 40 yards. In most situations, modified works ok, but if the birds are spooky and jumping early, a tighter choke can give you the extra yardage you need.

No. 6 or 7-1/2 shot in 2-3/4-inch shells is ample to bring the birds down. Many upland hunters favor a heavy load of copper- or nickel-plated No. 6s, saying larger, heavier shot is best for clean kills.

Hunting Strategies For Chukars

Hunters may spend hours, even days, to bag a single pair of chukars.

During the hot, dry weeks near the opening of upland hunting season, chukars usually concentrate near high-country watering sites and are not exceptionally wary (particularly young birds). This period can be very profitable for nimrods who can find upper-elevation water sources. Walk the perimeter of a pond, spring or creek early or late in the day, working your way out in widening circles to catch birds moving to and from water. Or hide by a waterhole and wait for chukars to come to you. From mid-morning to mid-afternoon, look for birds feeding and loafing on north-facing slopes and in cool, shady draws and basins.

As the season progresses, fall rains initiate new vegetation growth that coaxes chukars away from watering holes. During this yearly green-up period, all that tender grass, a favorite food of chukars, scatters the birds. Chukars can be anywhere then, so chukar hunters must spend more time on foot traversing mountain slopes and trudging to rugged peaks. All-terrain vehicles and four-wheel drives have opened to traffic lots of country a man formerly had to walk, but there is still a vast amount of habitat where a hunter requires “shanks’ mare” and physical stamina for access.

A good plan this time of year is to hike to a ridgeline or rocky rim early in the morning, and use binoculars to scan nearby thin-grass slopes for feeding birds. Try to zero in on the birds’ tell-tale calling. Then plan an approach that allows you to intercept the birds and flush them within shooting range.

In late season, inclement conditions drive chukars down from higher elevations so out-of-shape upland hunters don’t have to blow an artery trying to get to them. It’s much colder then, however; the birds are well-educated by upland hunters; and chukars will sneak, run and fly in ways that make them tougher targets than usual.

You’re most likely to find late-season birds on sunny, south-facing slopes at lower elevations. Many upland hunters focus attention on open patches of cheatgrass, looking for fresh chukar tracks in the snow and trying to sneak quietly up on a covey.

A good pointing dog is the chukar hunter’s best friend, whether pursuing the birds in the mountains of the west or hunting them on a shooting preserve in the South.

Never forget this chukar-hunter adage: chukars always run uphill and fly downhill. When possible, chukars will run to a peak or ridgetop before flushing, then fly downhill in an attempt to convert altitude into speed. If you follow from below, you’ll simply chase them to the top of the mountain only to watch them rocket down the other side. It’s best to intercept them quietly from above or across the slope. If cover is sparse, the only way to get close enough for a shot may be crossing over the crest of a hill and surprising a covey on the opposite slope.

Anticipate at what point the birds might flush. If they’re moving to the crest, they’ll bust loose when they get there. Get there first.

When upland hunting with a dog, be aware that chukars flushed after a point still want to fly downhill. Get between the birds and their escape route. To get around you, they’ll have to tower or flush sidehill. Both scenarios make for better shooting.

Watch the flushed birds closely, mark where they go down, and follow up quickly. Listen for the rally calls of scattered birds, which can lead you straight to singles. Lone birds often sit tightly, offering fine shooting if you can find them.

A well-trained pointing dog can be invaluable, cutting off running coveys and pinning close-sitting singles, and thus doubling your shooting. Also important is the aid a dog provides in finding and retrieving wounded or dead birds. Winged chukars frequently glide long distances and drop to a canyon bottom or opposite hillside. The chore of retrieving these can be daunting … unless you have a dog.

Safety Considerations For Chukar Hunting

Chukars are delicious, white-meated birds that can be roasted, grilled, fried or baked to prepared a mouth-watering meal.

The high country where chukars live is harsh and unforgiving. An inexperienced or complacent upland hunter can get in trouble if he doesn’t prepare properly for every trip afield.

Always wear/carry clothing proper for conditions that may be encountered, including headgear, gloves and boots broken in before chukar hunting. A map, compass and GPS are must-have gear, as well as a cell phone and/or two-way radio. Take plenty of water, including some for your dog. And always carry a survival kit packed with emergency supplies such as a butane lighter, first-aid items and a flashlight. Before you leave home, let someone know where you are going and when you will return.

A Chukar Hunter’s Perspective

An Oregon chukar fanatic summed up the chukar-hunting experience in a single paragraph that says volumes about the pursuit of this unique gamebird:

“After you’ve paid your dues, after hundreds of muscle cramps, frozen eyelashes, blisters, windburned cheeks, sunburned ears, fingers so cold they won’t bend and lips so cracked they can’t smile, after days when you’d trade your shotgun for a library card and your dog for a goldfish, you’ll look out one day over a landscape that opens itself only to those people who love it and realize you are one of them. You’ll turn around on a steep slope that has been kicking your butt to see the sun’s reflection on the river far below. You’ll gaze at the mountains 80 miles away, and see the world between in wrinkles, in springs, in knife-edged ridges, in rimrock as strong as the gods and fragile as eggshells. And above, you’ll hear that rhythmic chuk ... chuk ... chukkerrr from the birds you pursue. Rookie chukar hunters consider it mocking laughter, but you’ll know better. You’ll know they’re talking to you, telling you: Hurry back, hurry back—bring it on. That sound, that invitation, that challenge, helps you put the entire experience in perspective.”

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