Chasing Chukar

Chukar behavior changes as the winter wears on. Here's how to predict where your local birds will be in various conditions.

We know who you are. You have a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eye. Your most prized possession is a beat-up Remington 870 or a double gun showing its wear at the muzzle and the foregrip.

Dave Jones bagged this brace of chukar. These desert birds feed downhill in the mornings and then back uphill in the afternoons.
Photo by Gary Lewis.

There is dog hair on the seat of your truck, a worn-out map and a half-used box of No. 6s on the floorboard. For you, the year need only be divided into two parts: chukar season and dog training.

If you are one of those people who can't get enough, if your eyes go glassy when someone mentions rimrock and cheatgrass in the same sentence, then you know there is something magical about chukar: in the fog that hangs over the mountain, or a hunter and dog working the skyline.

But what is the reality behind the chukar's magic, behind that siren call from the rimrock? What is it about its habits and habitat, about the weather and pressure and predation that make our quarry one of the most prized of upland game birds?

Chukar don't live in hospitable habitats. In fact, the more rugged and desolate, the better they like it.

If the terrain grows nothing but sagebrush, bunchgrass, cheatgrass and softball-sized rocks, it's just about perfect.

Chukar thrive in and around sagebrush habitats, but sage doesn't account for much of a chukar's diet. This Eurasian transplant makes most of its living on another transplant from the same region: cheatgrass. Early in the season, where you find the best cheat, you will find birds.

But cheatgrass is only part of a chukar's diet. In one study, 91 different foods were found in the crops of 87 chukar. Russian thistle, grasses, dandelions, wheat, fruits and seeds were well represented. About 10 percent of the diet included insects.

The covey thrives in a dry environment, as long as there is water nearby. Early in the season, the birds are as predictable as they get, feeding down a slope to water in the morning and again in the evening.

Prospect for tracks in dried mud near a waterhole. Look for fresh droppings. Watch for signs of dusting where the birds make hollow depressions in loose, sandy soil. Find the feed and follow the chow line. It might be in the green fringe along a creek or around a stock tank.

Early in the season, you may find chukar anywhere, from the flats to the tops of the cliffs, but certain types of habitat hold more birds. Look for features that seem out of place: where green vegetation shows against a dry brown hillside, where a bump in the ground provides shelter from the wind, or a rocky outcropping on an otherwise bare hill.

Chukar start feeling the pressure on opening day, but their patterns don't change much until after the first heavy precipitation.

When the water is easy to find in the hollow of a rock and on the stems of grass, chukar don't have to feed all the way down to the river. When it rains in November and December, the birds are able to move farther afield on their search for groceries.

Tiny shoots of green grass push up through the soil. Brown hillsides take on a verdant hue. The green-up draws birds into smaller coveys and disperses them across a wider range. They feed on green grasses and broadleaf plants.

Now is the time of year when a hunter is most likely to find chukar on flat ground. Grassy mesas and hilltops may hold scattered coveys, at least until hunting pressure pushes them back down into the canyons.

Take a look at your favorite habitat with a map. Studies suggest that east-facing terrain holds the most promise. One researcher found that almost 90 percent of chukar nests occurred on southeast slopes. And this warmer location most often coincided with the best chukar feed.

In the field, use the minutes and hours between points to scout. Look for chukar droppings, which run about an inch in length. Older droppings appear tan in color, while the fresh stools appear green with a white uric acid cap. Find fresh droppings and you can surmise the level where the birds are finding their feed.

With a few weeks of hunting pressure behind them, the younger birds have gained some experience. Now, at the first sign of danger, the covey begins to move.

They run uphill. They disperse. They hide.

Anticipate at what point the birds might flush. If they're moving to the crest, they will bust loose when they get there. Get there first. If the dog goes on point, circle him and work back in from 40 or 50 yards out. Watch the dog's eyes for a clue to where he last saw a bird.

After the flush and the shots, reload quickly and wait to see if the dog picks up another scent. There may be one, two or three left in the grass.

If nothing moves, take a break and tune in. One of the best ways to locate birds is to listen. If you busted the covey, they will want to regroup, and the only way they know to do that is to call, usually within 15 minutes after they were disturbed. Once you pinpoint the chuk-chuk-chuka sound, start to move again. When the birds call, they are on the move, and when they are on the move, they head uphill, toward cover.

End-of-season chukar are toughest of all. They sneak. They run. They fly like fighter jets -- close to the ground, flat-out in a blur of wings and sound.

Look to the south-facing slopes when the cold wind blows, persistent rains fall and ice and snow blanket the desert. Remember, the birds don't need to stay close to their water source when the sky brings it to them.

In the wind, the birds seek out shelter, which might mean craggy rimrocks, draws choked with sagebrush, or even rocky depressions just off the crown of a hill. It doesn't take much cover to hide a 10-inch bird.

When the weather gets rough, chukar migrate vertically down. In heavy snow, the birds find feed and cover in habitat more typically associated with quail, hiding in the willows, down along the creek.

When freezing fog is a component of the hunt, chukar are easier to app

roach. You just have to know where they are. Now is a great time to have some way to locate the dog on point. One of the new GPS-assisted collars can help you walk in on the point. A collar with an automatic hawk scream can also hold the birds and help the hunters get into position in front of the dog.

In fact, a lot of hunters miss out on this one. Hawks make their living on chukar, Hungarian partridge and quail. If you see the avian competition hunting in an area, there is a good chance you found the birds.

When chukar country gets a late-season warm-up, look at the hilltops again. High winds can sweep the hilltops clear of snow. Chukar seek out remnant cheatgrass seeds and any green grasses that might appear, given a little sun and a thaw.

Late-season birds run hard and flush long. Even the young-of-the-year know enough to go on alert when they hear the slam of a car door, or humans shouting commands to dogs. An entire flock might freeze when alerted by the sentry. When danger approaches, they move off, running low to the ground. And they don't wait around for dogs to go on point and hunters to walk up and shoot them.

A pointing dog needs the wind in his nose. Plan the hunts to move the birds to a final spot for one last flush. A topographic map that shows elevation change is a good tool in planning such a hunt.

A tactic that pays off at any time of the season is to hunt down from above. When the dog goes on point, the bird wants to fly downhill. Get between the bird and its escape route. To get around you, the bird will have to tower, or flush sidehill. Both scenarios make for better shooting.

Chukar populations fluctuate due to the whims of weather, predation and pressure. There are no guarantees, except that you'll work harder for chukar than for any other game bird.

Why do you plan every weekend of the season with a nod to the rimrocks and the canyons? It's the wind in your face, the crisp, clean air in your lungs, and the dogs tense as coiled springs. And chukar on the wing in one breathless instant.

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