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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
The Devil’s Bird
Out Of Bounds
My young setter Doll is rounding into shape. She’s got a few seasons under her belt, and a couple months of training as well. She even proved to be a Mearns’ quail dog of some promise when we hunted Arizona after Christmas.

We’re back in the Northern Rockies now, and the depths of mid-January winter is not prime time for bird hunting. But in the final weeks of the season we had a nice break in the weather and squeezed in a last hunt, chasing chukar up on the bench just outside of town.

While the weather was fine, I underestimated the depth of the crusty snow lingering on the slopes. You can see the bench from town about six miles away and at that distance the snow looked dirty and unsubstantial. When we arrived I discovered that some of the spots we’d moved coveys on walks in the fall were now buried under crusty drifts two or three feet deep.

The broken edge of the bench is hard country. It’s steep and rocky. In the spots where it levels out a bit and the top soil is more than an inch or so deep, sage grows in thick stands. That’s where we find birds.

The rough nature of the land suits chukar just fine, as it resembles the country back home. These birds are imports, natives of the deserts of central Asia. Pakistan, where they are the national bird, is chukar central.

Chukar have been spread around much of the West. They’re fairly numerous in a few places in Wyoming, including the badlands around Cody and Powell. The only huntable populations in Montana are just over the border in Carbon County. Hardcore chukar hunters know to head for the desert country where Oregon, Idaho and Nevada come together. That’s the Pakistan of America, at least as far as chukar hunters are concerned.

I killed my first chukar in a canyon near Pocatello, Idaho. I had a spot about 15 minutes from the house where I’d occasionally find chukar and Huns. I took that bird home and ate it for dinner. They’re fine eating birds, with mild white breast meat.

The breast meat is a hint at why the birds are so tough to hunt. Game birds that fly long distances develop dark, hemoglobin-rich breast tissue designed to sustain flight, while birds that run — quail, pheasants — have lighter breast tissue made up of the kind of fast-twitch muscle that is good for explosive bursts on the wing.

No game bird likes to run more than chukar.

On that last hunt of the season Doll and I finally made our way through the crusted drifts near the rim of the bench. Unfortunately that also foiled my original plan to hunt from the rim down into birdy looking patches of sage.

That turned out to be bad news. When disturbed, chukar run uphill away from danger. This is the dual advantage of creating some separation from the threat, as few critters — especially shotgun toting bipeds — move uphill as fast as these birds. Once they’ve gained a bit of elevation, chukar then use it to their advantage flying downhill so they can cover more ground with less effort.

The covey took flight near the top of the ridgeline. I heard them first, the familiar helicopter-like eruption of frantic wings. Then I saw the birds sail over the next ridge.

I followed tracks in the snow to the point where the birds gathered, then flushed, from under the sage. The wind was wrong. Doll had never picked up the scent.

We worked our way across to the ridgeline where the chukar had disappeared. If the birds had been sharptail they almost certainly would have been right there, just downhill from where they’d gone out of sight. But as we cleared the ridgeline Doll didn’t pick up scent. A few more steps and I could see why: those birds had escaped into a deep crevasse that descended to the depths of Hell.

There’s a reason why hunters joke that they kill their first chukar for food, and the rest, for revenge.
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