Birding Notes: Chukar


Chukar, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Chukar, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Chukar are an introduced game bird. Native to Eastern Europe and Southern Asia, they were introduced in more than 40 states, more than a million birds. The Idaho introduction came in 1933, and breeding populations are established in the southern half of Idaho, except in the middle parts of the Snake River Plain. They are a favorite game bird across the Intermountain West.

They are found where there are rock faces and scree, with grasses, shrubs and forbs. They are usually pretty hard to find; birds that were easy to see are some hunter’s dinner, whether the hunter is an animal predator or a shotgun-armed hunter. But this time of the year, the males are establishing territories and calling for a mate. The mating call gives the species its English name: chuk-chuk-chuk-chukar-chukar-chukar. It’s not as weird as, say, the Willow Ptarmigan mating call, but it’s very distinctive and odd to hear in Idaho’s wilderness.

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

These birds weren’t especially cooperative, mostly choosing boulders that made them backlit, and calling with their heads pointed away. But these were among the clearest views WC has gotten of the species so, back-lit or not, harsh light or not, WC will happily keep the photos.

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

WC has seen this species in Utah, California, Idaho, Oregon and Hawai’i. When you remember they are introduced and not native, it’s pretty remarkable.

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Chukar, Little Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

In Eastern Europe and Southern Asia, there are some 16 subspecies of Chukar. Game bird breeders have largely obliterated the subspecies distinction with cross-breeding in North America, and there don’t seem to be any studies yet on whether the North American birds have evolved away from birds in their native habitat. Certainly hunting them in North America takes real skill.

Chukar seem to thrive on the kind of over-grazed rocky slopes that the Idaho cattle industry seems to be determined to create. Populations are stable or even increasing slowly. They are, like House Sparrows, Eurasian Starlings and feral Rock Pigeons, a permanent part of the ecology now.

Presently, Chukar are ranked as the number 1 game bird in Nevada and Oregon, and number 2 and 3 in Washington and Idaho, respectively. Over 20 million birds were “harvested” – a euphemism for “killed” –  during a 49 year interval (1947-1995) in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, California, and Utah. That’s hunting pressure off of the native birds like Greater Sage Grouse. There is little evidence that Chukar impair other bird species. So, for once, mostly a win for an introduced species.