Upland game seasons are opening in August and September around the country. For those of us in the West who seek punishment and frustration, that means chukar season.
What’s A Chukar?
Chukars are game birds introduced from Asia and the Middle East. They are a type of partridge and they are delicious table fare. Their colors are striking, with black and white bars on their sides and blue heads with black bandit masks and red beaks and feet. Bigger than a dove, smaller than a pheasant; the size of a huge city pigeon. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird.
Their habitat may crossover with Hungarian partridges (huns) and I’ve encountered quail and chukar in the same hike. They look like quail in flight, but they are two or three times larger than quail.
Huns and quail may be in the same area, but you’ll find them at the bottom of a hill while chukar inhabit the steep slopes. In the American West, they are typically found on volcanic bluffs where steep slopes come down from rocky cliff tops. Having said that, I’ve also found chukar while bear hunting on steep forested hills, but the birds inhabit the sunny side of the canyon where there are few trees and lots of open country.
Chukar primarily eat grass leaves and seeds, as well as some insects. Their main food is cheatgrass, which was also introduced from Asia and the Middle East. If you find a steep hill with cheatgrass in Idaho, Nevada, or Utah, you’re likely in chukar country. They are also found in Montana, California, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Colorado. You may find a ranch that stocks pen-raised chukar in other places, too.
Chukar like those steep hills because they are in complete control. They usually post a lookout who stands on a prominent rock to watch while the rest of the covey eats. I’ve usually seen groups of five to fifteen birds in a covey. That lookout bird usually spots you before you spot them and the whole group starts walking away uphill. They can climb the hill much faster than you can.
If you get close enough, they will flush and fly downhill. They’ll mostly stick together and land within yards of one another. Upon landing they will immediately call to each other to get back together. Keep an eye on where they land because you can usually go after them again. Of course, it means giving up a lot of elevation.
Chukar hunting is usually an exercise in…exercise. You’ll go up and down a whole lot. Depending on how you look at it, it’s great training for big game hunting; or big game hunting is great training for chukar hunting. In Idaho, you can hunt chukar from the last of August to the last of January, so you get lots of opportunity and lots of miles on your boots.
If you’ve found a place where chukar live, hunting on foot without dogs can be productive. Look for groups of droppings that look like small turkey droppings–like a little green ice cream cone with a white top. You’ll find the droppings on rock outcrops on ridges or the tops of hills. This is a great place to start hunting.
Start early on cool mornings. You’ll find the birds huddled up on the lee side of rocks out of the wind. If they don’t see you coming, they may not flush until you are within a few yards. Be ready because they flush fast and loudly and head downhill. Give them a good lead because they are fast. choose one bird and focus your shot–flock shooting is not effective. Keep your gun up after the initial flush because there is usually one that flushes after the others and you’ll miss him if you lower your gun.
Watch where the birds go, but don’t chase them yet. You may find more as you continue up the ridge. Let those birds regroup and listen for their calls. Use binoculars to find them before you go chasing after them again. Their call is a series of “chuck-chuck-chuck” or “per-chuck per-chuck per-chuck.” Check out Whatbird.com for samples of their calls.
When the sun is higher and the day is warming, the birds begin actively feeding. Glassing can be very effective, especially as they rouse and start moving to feed.
Listen for their calls, glass for the birds on the move, and then get after it. I’ve shot birds 200 yards from the car, and I’ve shot birds six miles from the car. Bring water and snacks and dress in layers–you’ll heat up really fast climbing the steep slopes where these birds live.
A technique I’ve heard of but haven’t had a chance to try yet is to tie a helium-filled balloon to your back while hunting. The chukars supposedly think it’s a hawk and won’t flush until you are much closer.
Dog people think dogs are the only way to hunt chukar, and they may be right. Walking can be effective if you’ve scouted and seen the signs of where birds have been, but dogs are much more effective at finding where birds are right now. It’s still going to be a lot of walking, but it should be much more effective. The dogs can smell the birds and hear them better than you can.
My favorite thing about hunting over dogs is that they find the birds waaaaay faster than you can. A chukar was the first game animal I ever killed. I shot it after it flushed and was heading downhill. I saw it hit the ground next to a distinct rock and went down to find it. Although I saw exactly where it landed, it still took me 45 minutes to find it! They are so well camouflaged on the ground. I was scrambling all around this rock on a steep slope looking for it, sliding down two steps for each step up. Dogs use their nose and find them in a matter of seconds.
On the other hand, hunting with dogs that aren’t trained for bird hunting will make you crazy. They may find birds, but they may range too far away and flush birds when you aren’t in range.
Guns and Loads
7 1/2 or 6 shot in 2 3/4″ shells are effective for chukar. I’d recommend a 12 gauge or 20 gauge gun because the shells are so easy to come by–if you forget your ammo, you can probably pick some up at the gas station.
Personally, my ideal setup is a 20 gauge gun with number 6 steel shot. I like the 20 gauge because the gun is a little lighter weight than a 12, and the shells are a little lighter weight, too. It may mean fewer pellets in the air to connect with a bird, but when you’re hiking those steep hills with your gun in hand the whole time, you really feel every ounce of extra weight.
Use a medium choke, like Improved Cylinder or Modified. It doesn’t take much to drop chukar from the sky–if you can hit them.
Use either a pump or a semi-automatic. I’ll be hunting this season with a CZ 712 semi-auto.
I like steel shot because I can use a magnet to find the pellets in the meat. My wife loves to eat upland game, but finding a pellet in her mouth ruins the whole meal for her. I use steel because I can find pellets much easier, but there are lots of terrific loads for upland birds that will serve.
Chukar are delicious birds. Their meat is white and flavorful but in no way unpleasant. You should allow your birds to cool as much as you can while hunting. Hang them on a strap or lay them in an empty pack. The meat is delicious the same day you kill them, but if you can let them hang for a few days they become more and more tender. Hang them in a cool shed, or lay them on a wire rack in a fridge. Keep the temperature below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. My neighbor was throwing away a mini-fridge from his daughter’s college dorm, and I claimed it for aging birds and rabbits. It’s perfect.
Hang the birds “undrawn”–don’t gut them. Just hang them by their feet or by their heads with a little space between them. You’ll gut them when you prep them for eating. After aging, you can pluck them, but you’ll also get good results if you skin them.
This magazine is called Hunt 365, and if you pursue chukar all through the season you’ll be well on your way to hunting 365 days a year. They are a challenging hunt, but a whole lot of fun. It’s quite a rush when you’ve been climbing a steep hill and suddenly the sound of a full-automatic weapon firing signals a covey of birds flushing. If you can, go out with dogs, but don’t listen if anyone says you can’t hunt them effectively without hounds. Hunting chukar will keep you in shape and keep your hunting senses sharp, and they are some of the tastiest game. Get out there and hunt.