We were miles from any road it seemed, but chukar habitat in North America is generally not near agricultural land. So we did some serious driving in with the help of a sturdy four wheel drive to where we could hike in. Not for photos or fun, but stalking what was becoming, to me, as elusive as a steelhead trout. For we weren't hunting the "raised to be hunted" chukar, who can't run, can't fly and has all the cunning of of parakeet, lounging on it's shrubbery couch on a "preserve", somewhere flat. We were after the wild chukar.
The bird is known as chukar partridge, red-legged partridge, rock partridge, Indian hill partridge, kau-ka, keklik and, for people without spell check, chukka, chukkar, chukker, chuker, or chukor. The full scientific name of our subject is Aves Galliformes Phasianidae Alectoris Chukar.
The name comes from the sound they make, though like most game birds, the vocalizations are divided into the categories of alarm, courtship and social contact. The chuck, chuck, chuck is the most common call from both sexes that over time sounds more like a chukar-chukar, and can be heard from a surprisingly long distance.
Chukar were first introduced into North America in 1893 by W.O. Blaisdell from Illinois who imported five pairs from India. Alectoris chukar was introduced en masse during the 1930's and have established populations in all of the western states and into Canada. I was hunting in Carbon County, in Montana, where my family is from.
I've pheasant hunted in Iowa and I can't remember walking in so hard and so far to chase a little bird that, size wise, would be simply a snack to the average lumberjack. With pheasants you can hunt where it's flat, places good for aging knees and a hiker with an extra 20 pounds. Chukar? These boys like to live up near a ridge line that a goat would get altitude sickness at.
Chukar hunting is not for those that don't like to hike uphill. This bird likes slope grades over 7 percent with a rise of at least 200 feet. It's also not for the hunter who is not prepared for a small bird that, when spooked, reacts like a pilot of a high performance aircraft, turning altitude into speed as he flies downhill faster than you can get your bead on him. There he is! Where'd he go? The chukar is not a shy little schooboy like the bobwhite. He's a elusive little guerrilla fighter. That's part of what makes a chukar hunt worth the cramping muscles, the blister and the dangers of high, crumbling elevations.
Our eyes searched back and forth, looking for sign. Chuker droppings naturally, or an area of possible roosts. Chukars roost on the ground, usually under an outcrop, or lacking that, some brush, the nests being little more than simple scrapes, sometimes lined with their own feathers or grasses. Spotting one of these will be like spotting a hint of sense in a legislative bill. Doesn't mean you don't try though. If there are nests, they will be within 2 miles of water and water was nearby.
From up above, the siren call, chuck chuck chuck, not laughing at me as some hunters say about the call, but rather bring it on, bring it on. Not a mock but a challenge, telling me come on up and join me, pit your forces against my world. A challenge I can't resist. In Indian mythology, the Chukar sometimes symbolizes intense, and often unrequited, love, the chukar allegedly in love with the moon, sending out it's call to it's desire. It's a call I can not ignore.
I was hunting with friends from work, walking 40 yards apart or so, the dog forming a small four legged shadow to me, panting, eager. The tail began the wag. A sign that she smelled that extra treat in my pocket or there were birds in the area. A few loners, or a covey? A covey is formed of adults and their offspring, meeting up with other small groups around a common water source. You could easily see a hundred birds in a group like that. But this area had recently had a spring rain. With the rainfall, the birds would have likely scattered like leaves and those small groups remaining together would be the smaller and tightly knit family groups.
We knew well enough about the rain, we'd been caught in it. I don't care how hardy you are, there's nothing worse than a cold soaking rain when you're out in the wild, not expecting it. There's just NO getting warm. Movement is treacherous, the ground is a food sucking mess, alternating with slippery rock that would just as soon fling you down the mountainside, then give you a firm footing. The rain washes the scent from the air til even your dog starts getting cbored and cranky. It can be miserable. It can be mind numbing. The sensible thing to do would be to pack it in and go home and watch "Mythbusters". But when you look at the terrain of Chukar Country the word "sensible" just doesn't come to mind.
Today, though was cold but dry, so we continued until that moment came. It was the one I'd waited for, the dog going into point, the screech and a whistle of a bird too frantic to stay, exploding from an outcropping, diving down slope, green eyes looking up, looking down, and the burst from a 12 gauge echoing down the canyon. There was nothing left in the air but the shadow of motion and speed , the bird plunging to the ground 75 yards downhill. No one spoke. I stood, and there was only the snow, and the frigid air and the smell of gunpowder in the air.
The bird is small, hardly enough to feed the three of us, but that's not why we are here really. As a dense, gray feathered rocket bursts forth from the last hiding spot, I realize, it's not about the bird, it's seizing that last brace of freedom for both predator and prey.
From 40 yards to my 3 o'clock position comes an artillery of birds from a group of low shrubs. Guns raised, I simply wait, giving them their shot. Sharing with my friends that brief, unsubstantiated moment of glory that can not last, but will. Moments remembered in those quiet times when flesh hesitates to speak, but memory remains. Memories of the high country, a fierce little bird with many names. Chasing it down the draws that led me deeper into the wilderness of my heart.