Exactly 70 years ago, in the rolling foothills of the Himalayas, a fellow named Blaisdell tangled with a game little bird called a chukar partridge. Nobody seems to remember why Mr. Blaisdell was wandering around the Himalayas or, for that matter, very much more about Mr. Blaisdell, but it is clear that the bird caught his fancy. So much so, in fact, that he returned to Illinois with five breeding pairs of chukars and lofty dreams of populating his native hedgerows with hundreds more.
Had Blaisdell suspected the ecological upheaval his imports were to cause, he probably would have brought home a man-eating tiger instead, for no game bird introduced into the U.S. in the last century has caused as much confusion, contradiction and controversy as the chukar partridge. And certainly no bird on the American hunting scene today is quite as contrary.
The chukar looks innocent enough. It is tastefully plumed and artistically turned out. Slate-blue feathers soften its breast, brilliant black bars stripe its flanks, and demure white underpinnings peek from beneath its tail—an impeccable ensemble accented by lipstick-red legs, beak and eye rims. Only a biologist can distinguish a female from a male chukar, although the latter, not unlike the males of many other species, has a somewhat swelled head. The chukar averages a pound and a half when grown, putting it midway between the bobwhite and the pheasant in size. In wariness it is a mile ahead of both.
Quail and pheasants, for example, generally sit tight to a dog, conveniently waiting until the hunter gets within shooting range before taking to the air. The chukar will have no part of such foolishness. It knows full well that neither man nor dog is up to any good, and it makes no pretense of investigating further. Long before either reaches the spot where the chukar used to be, the bird has gone elsewhere.
December 9, 1963
It gets there by two distinctively chukar routes: the uphill dash and the downhill swerve. In the former the bird-takes off on foot instead of on wing. Its choice may be based on location (how far down or up a mountainside it happens to be), on specific terrain (how steep or rocky the grade is), on the cover (how thick or how sparse) or, as is often the case, on what seems pure perversity. Whatever the reason, when a chukar begins to run, it can outdistance anything on two legs. It runs straight uphill, and the hunter who thinks he can catch up may find out that chukar-chasing is a shortcut to a coronary.
No less frustrating is the bird's downhill escape. Here the chukar does fly, as any self-respecting game bird should. But its flight is something else again. To begin with, a lookout bird frequently flushes ahead of the covey, careening almost vertically into the air with a loud chuk-chuk-chuking designed to startle the hunter into emptying his gun at nothing but air. As soon as the other birds decide that the hunter is out of shells, they take off, too. Like their lookout, they do so when they are well out of range—just in case an extra load of No. 6 shot still happens to be in the chamber.
Not that one shell would do much good. Besides flushing at anywhere from 60 to 600 yards, the chukar is an aerial acrobat of some accomplishment. "The only way to hunt them is from the top of the ridges on down," says Bob Shinn of Clarkston, Wash., who confesses to an obsession with the bird. "You usually can spot a chukar hunter—one leg is shorter than the other from all the downhill climbing. Still, this is a lot healthier than trying to chase them uphill. Chukars stay high early in the day, but around midmorning they move on down to the draws and canyon bottoms. This is the time to get a shot at them.
"The best way is with a couple of partners," Shinn continues, "each hunting parallel to the ridge, one above the other. If the birds run uphill, the hunter at the top gets a shot. If they fly downhill, the fellow at the bottom gets a shot. That's the theory. What usually happens is they all flush a mile ahead of you or sneak on back through your ranks."
A dog is more hindrance than help. Paul Shoemaker, a professional trainer from Seattle, tried setters, Labradors and goldens on chukars and finally gave up in disgust. With the pointing dogs, even close-ranging ones, the birds invariably flushed out of range. The retrievers all threatened to have nervous breakdowns. No matter where a Lab or a golden marked a downed chukar, it was even money that the bird would not be there when the dog reached the spot. Even when hit, the chukar always seems to travel a long way from where it falls before finally coming to rest.
"The only kind of dog I'd ever take chukar hunting again," says Shoemaker, "is a St. Bernard that would follow at heel with a 50-gallon jug of cold beer around its neck. That crazy bird is just too much."
The chukar began causing trouble in the U.S. before a shot was ever fired at it. Between the arrival of those first 10 birds in Illinois and the opening of the first chukar-hunting seasons in Nevada and Washington half a century later, almost every state in the union got mixed up with this Himalayan import. From the Everglades of Florida to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, from the big woods of New England to the grape orchards of California, hundreds of thousands of chukars were released over the countryside.
They were planted in the lush plantation country of Georgia and Alabama where bobwhite quail grow fat and sassy on soybean, bayberries and lespedeza. The chukar wasted away and died. They were set out in the golden stubble of the Dakota wheat fields where another import, the ringneck pheasant, had become bold on the bounty. The chukar grew weak and died. They were tried in the game-rich cornfields of Iowa, in the catfish and cottontail climate of Missouri, in the grouse-filled thickets of New England. Minnesota alone liberated some 85,000 chukars over a period of years; Wisconsin released almost 20,000. Everywhere the story was the same. Other game bird populations prospered; the chukar vanished.
What chukars did not die of their own accord fell prey to just about every imaginable predator. Foxes, hawks, owls, raccoons, weasels and even indigent pet dogs added the chukar to their diets. In Minnesota, ordinary housecats managed to knock off 50% of one release with little more effort than it takes to lap up a saucer of milk. Not only was the chukar proving to be the most delicate—and expensive—import ever introduced into the U.S. but it also gave every indication of being the dumbest.
The real culprit, of course, was not the bird but Blaisdell—only nobody thought to blame him. Instead, his basic and incontrovertible error was blithely compounded. For Blaisdell's sin was not in bringing the chukar to America (indeed, this act warrants his eternal salvation) but, rather, in bringing it to the state of Illinois.
What conceivable similarity Blaisdell detected between the flat, humid Illinois countryside and the windswept foothills of the chukar's native Himalayas is a mystery that will doubtless remain unsolved. It is, in fact, only surpassed by the comparable mysteries of why such improbable places as Florida, Nebraska, Alabama and Wisconsin thought they, too, could offer the chukar habitat similar to its own.
For the basic clue that was consistently overlooked by everyone during almost 50 years of unsuccessful efforts to establish the chukar in the U.S. was the significance of the bird's origin. The chukar is one of 22 subspecies of rock partridge (Alectoris graeca) native to southern Asia. Thousands of years were involved in its adaptation to the particular environment in which Blaisdell found it. For the bird to survive anywhere else, it had to find exactly similar climate, altitude, food and terrain. Today this is a fundamental truth of game management. But as recently as the 1930s and early 1940s, when chukars, were being thrust indiscriminately into cornfields and hedgerows, it was the single truth that everyone overlooked.
It is not hard to understand why. Who would suspect, for example, that any bird would flourish on unvegetated, overbrowned slopes—but would die in a field of lespedeza? Who would believe that a bird, by choice, would prefer barren rock buttes scorned even by mountain goats to the protection of a cozy thicket of multiflora rose? Who would conceive of a bird that turns up its beak at inviting water holes and deliberately seeks an area almost devoid of moisture? Yet these were exactly the conditions the chukar was looking for. In all the unsuccessful attempts to plant it across the country, the bird was actually being killed by kindness.
It finally found what it did want quite by accident. Along with the rest of the U.S., Nevada and Washington caught the chukar craze in the '30s and began releasing birds. Most of them went the way of their predecessors, but a few happened to land on steep, rocky talus slopes and semidesert scablands that reminded them invitingly of home. Here at last were the sagebrush and cheatgrass, rabbit brush and greasewood, bunchgrass and serviceberries scorned by other game but relished by chukars. Here were the rock outcroppings, cliffs and bluffs, the 45° slopes and the dry, open canyons that offered baking sun when the birds wanted it, and safety from predators. These areas were, in fact, so suited to the peculiar demands of the chukar that some birds traveled more than 50 miles to reach them. By the late '40s, when the bird was finally put on the hunting lists of Nevada and Washington, close to 100,000 chukars were harvested in a single season. At least three times that number, all stemming from initial releases of only 4,000 in Washington and 5,000 in Nevada, made it through the season unmolested.
The magic, though improbable, formula had finally been discovered. Today California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming—states with arid, barren regions comparable to those in eastern Washington and Nevada—have thriving populations and long and liberal hunting seasons. After a half-century struggle simply to survive, the chukar in less than a decade has emerged as one of the West's most important game birds. Only the pheasant and the Hungarian partridge (SI, Oct. 30, 1961) of countless exotic species introduced into the U.S. have had comparable success, and the chukar's future is so bright that it may well outdazzle both these birds.
"The only real problem today," says Don Steele, Washington State game protector, "is harvesting enough chukars. We keep making the seasons longer and the limits larger [from September to mid-January in Washington, with a daily bag of eight and possession limit of 24] but we can't seem to put a dent in the population. Out here there are room and birds for 10 times as many hunters as we get, but a lot of people don't even know about the chukar. It is a sport that is just getting started. In another few years it will be the hottest upland hunting in the West."