If scrambling around on steep, sunbaked, cactus-infested rocky slopes sounds appealing, then chukar hunting is for you. These small but tasty game birds, also called chukar partridge, are native to Asia, but have been introduced to many areas of dry, rocky habitat around the globe. There are no native partridges in North America, but several have been introduced. Chukar partridges (Alectois chukar) were first released on this continent in 1893, and since then a million of these birds have been introduced into most US states and six of 10 Canadian provinces. The introductions to the western US were very successful, and the source of many releases in the 1950s was the big flocks of chukars now in Washington and Oregon. However, BC is the only Canadian province where the species took hold. Even in BC, chukars did not establish widely, despite numerous attempts in many areas, including Vancouver Island. They are found in healthy numbers only in the driest parts of the southern interior, particularly the Thompson and Okanagan valleys. They have established best on low-elevation slopes of the Thompson River valley from Kamloops to Lytton, but keen bird watchers and bird hunters may be able to find them in the south Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.
BC hosts only one chukar species, but these birds are from a large and complex group of similar-looking game bird species of Europe and Asia. The native range of the chukar species now in BC is a large area across southern Asia, from Turkey to Nepal and northern China.
Chukars are attractive and distinctive birds and there is little sexual dimorphism. That is, both sexes look alike. They are the size of a small chicken, weighing a bit more than half a kilogram, with a chunky, grey-brown body, bold white and black bars on the wings, a white gorget (throat patch) with a striking black line from each eye that joins in a V on their chest. The skin on their legs is reddish, as it is on many of their cousins, including the European red-legged partridge. Chukars are so named thanks to their raspy, squawking call, especially when alarmed, something like: chuck, chuck, chuck … chu-kar, chu-KAR.
Chukar breeding season is in the spring and the pairs are monogamous. A chukar nest is a simple depression in the ground, lined with feathers and dry grass, located under an overhanging rock or a dense shrub for cover. The clutch size can be huge, up to 20 eggs, although normally it’s closer to 10. Incubation takes about three weeks, mostly done by the female. The chicks are precocious, able to move about on their own and feed soon after hatching, and they are getting ready to fly at only two weeks old. They are full grown by September. These hardy little birds can live 10 years.
Unlike many birds, chukars spend most of their time on the ground. The food of adult chukars is primarily the seeds and leaves of whatever grasses, forbs and low-growing shrubs are nearby. They really like the seeds of cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), which is an invasive plant from Asia that is now widespread in BC. Insects are also on the menu, particularly for young chukars because their rapid growth requires high-quality protein. When alarmed, chukars prefer to run away, but burst into noisy flight when the threat is close. However, these flights are short, and they are soon running on the ground again. So, this species is likely not the “partridge in a pear tree” from the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Gallinaceous (chicken-like) birds have called Asia home for many millions of years, and chukars and other partridges have a long, and successful, evolutionary history. In fact, chukar chicks may be helping us to understand a piece of evolution. While in training for flight in their third week of life, they often practice what’s called wing-assisted incline running, which involves running up very steep slopes while pushing and flapping their underdeveloped wings, and so propel themselves faster than using legs alone. This behaviour is particularly well studied with chukar chicks and some scientists think that it is a clue to the evolution of flight that started with dinosaurs and led to modern birds.
So, at home in a habitat that many humans would consider unappealing, this colourful little game bird is attracting interest from sportsmen and scientists alike.
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