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.