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.
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."