After introducing the Cascadia Field Guide to our readers, I couldn’t help but think about the Chukars (Alectoris chukar) that visit our rural yard perched among the steep bluffs and canyons of the Snake River Valley, that is assuming you can call the surrounding rocks and rabbitbrush and native bunchgrass a yard.
In the Cascadia Field Guide, writer Prageeta Sharma says that in Eastern Indian mythology, the Chukar “is a symbol of deep love.” While I don’t know about that mythology, I do know from direct observation that Chukars demonstrate a deep love of life, and despite some bickering and arguing, strong social bonds bind coveys together after the breeding season when successfully nesting pairs begin to regroup and bring their young together into larger aggregations.
In fact, their love of life is so intense that males in spring cannot resist finding a prominent rock from which to broadcast their characteristic tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck, chukara-chukara-chukara-chukara-chukara-screech-screech-screech-screech beginning about 4 am as the sun only hints at rising. No need for an alarm clock. My “wild chickens” enthusiastically do a fine job of that, although options to change the wake-up time or to snooze appear limited.
Did you get that call? It starts out with a little warm-up that sounds somewhat like a quietly clucking chicken, except that it’s a tuck-tuck-tuck. Then they go full bore into their main call by sounding like a slow churning, chugging machine, chukara, chukara, chukara, chukara which tapers off into several quiet screeches.
If you want to listen to a recorded call, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology page for the Chukar and click on the “Listen” button. However, I think that my Chukars have a slightly different dialect than the Chukar call provided at the Cornell Lab. Birds do that. It’s common for many bird species to have variation in song and calls across portions of their range.
Chukars will visit our patio and scavenge seed spilled on the ground from a suspended bird feeder. In the intense summer heat of the Snake River Valley, they sometimes visit a short bird bath to drink, the young, pin-feathered chicks clearly appreciating the water not available elsewhere on the surrounding dry bluffs and rock outcrops.
However, please don’t think that Chukars are in any way tame even if they’re not afraid of visiting human habitations. They are not. At the first sight of any movement, they’ll quickly get a running start and then flush and fly downhill rapidly giving a screech, screech, screech warning or alarm call. Good luck to anyone foolish enough to give chase over the steep terrain.
Some people may not appreciate Chukars as much as some other birds, because they were introduced from Eurasia starting in the 1800s. But they’ve now become widely naturalized in the western U.S. and the Snake River Valley would be less vibrant and filled with life without them.
I’m not aware that they cause any particular harm to any other species, other than the plants and insects they eat, so at this point, they seem like a worthwhile addition to the rough, rocky bluffs along the Snake River. I’m sure the abundant Red-tailed hawks and other raptors don’t mind at all.
Historically, I suppose that the native Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) would have occurred in the Valley even if they originally were far more abundant in the shrub-steppe grasslands of the adjacent Palouse Prairie, which is now converted to the wheat farmland surrounding Pullman and Washington State University. But Sharp-tailed grouse can’t subsist on wheat fields alone. In the absence of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, I’ll take Chukars as a partial substitute.
Wikipedia says that the Chukar Partridge is within “a confusing group” of “red-legged partridges” that exhibit plumage variations among perhaps as many as 14 or more subspecies occurring across its large global range. Here in the Snake River Valley and surrounding areas there are a few somewhat similar-looking birds to the casual observer.
Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix), also commonly called Hungarian Partridge, are another introduced, but naturalized game bird somewhat similar to Chukars, but typically found in areas of extensive agricultural fields and are not at all likely to overlap with Chukars. The only place I’ve noticed Gray Partridges are in harvested wheat fields between Pullman and Lewiston, but then only rarely as they seem to be quite uncommon in the extensive slicked-clean wheat fields that lack even a hint of unplowed fenceline habitats.
California Quail (Callipepla californica), a little larger than an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), are a truly delightful little quail with a teardrop head plume that seldom visit the more open upper slopes of the Snake River Valley occupied by Chukar and are more likely to be found closely associated with human habitations, farms, ranches, and houses, that provide more extensive and protective tree and shrub cover. These small birds would likely be extremely vulnerable to raptors in the more open grassland and rocky habitats typically used by Chukars.
Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus) are superficially similar to Chukar by having bold white bars on their sides, but are smaller, about the same size as California quail but with a dramatic, upright, spiked head plume. Unfortunately, it’s not likely you’ll confuse Mountain Quail with Chukars as they are quite uncommon and do not occur in the Snake River Valley, instead occupying more shrubby drainages and forested mountainous areas in southeastern Washington.
The first time I saw a Chukar I was excited, even though the bird was dead. Years ago while driving south out of Pullman I noticed a brightly colored bird laying on the side of the road. Quickly turning around to investigate, I realized it was a Chukar that apparently had been hit by a car.
Chukars do not occur naturally up in the Palouse Prairie region around Pullman, so I suspected that the bird may have been an escapee from someone’s captive flock. That didn’t stop me from being excited at having a bird in hand and being able to see the marvelous plumage up close.
I’m going to assume that you don’t routinely find dead Chukars on the side of the road, or that you necessarily have rough rocky bluffs, rabbitbrush, rattlesnakes, and bunchgrass around your house. But if you’d like to see the plumage of Chukars up close, you are welcome to view the slide show below.
Most of the photos are actually taken through the living room picture window and some under the dark, cloudy skies of winter. Consequently, these pictures are not particularly artistic, other than the beauty of the bird itself.
They may be non-native, but I’m glad they’re here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d best get to bed as I have an early wake-up call.
Brought to you by: Dirty Window Photography – courtesy of R. Sayler, School of the Environment
Note: To begin the slide show, click on an image and tap or use arrows to advance. To exit the slide show, press the Escape button on your keyboard or tap on the “x” in the upper left hand corner of your tablet or phone.