Dear Bird Folks,
My friend in Pennsylvania sent me a note saying that she had a “Chukar” in her yard. I used to live in Pennsylvania and never heard of a Chukar. Apparently, it is some kind of bird, but that’s all I know. Do you know what a Chukar is?
– Barbara, Wellfleet, MA
Of course, Barbara,
Of course I know what a Chukar is. Who do you think you are talking to? There are two things you should know about me. First of all, when someone sends me a question you can be assured that I’m going to know the answer. I don’t mean to brag, but that’s just the way it is. I have a gift. The other thing you should know is that if I receive a question, and for some reason I don’t know the answer, I simply throw the question into the wastebasket and pretend I never received it. It’s a great system and it explains why my wastebasket is always full.
Chukars are indeed birds, but I understand your confusion. The name “Chukar” sounds like someone you’d pay to clean your garage or an English guy who is hired to throw drunks out of the local pub. But in spite of their guttural-sounding name, Chukars are rather attractive birds. Their presence would brighten any backyard, especially a yard in Pennsylvania. Another reason why you might not know about Chukars is that they aren’t from North America. Long before our jobs were outsourced to India and Pakistan, India and Pakistan outsourced some of their birds to us. In 1893 five pairs of these chubby partridges were brought to the U.S. from Pakistan. Chukars are about twice the size of bobwhites and are three times heavier, probably from eating too many curry dishes. Because Chukars are game birds, it’s pretty safe to assume that the sole reason for their introduction into this country was to give hunters something to shoot at, and to occasionally clean out a garage or two.
Unlike many introduced species, such as House Sparrows, Norway Rats and humans, Chukars haven’t had a major negative impact on the North American ecosystem. They thrive in environments that most other creatures avoid. A lush, green, fertile valley might sound appealing to us, but Chukars can’t get away from a place like that fast enough. Their habitat of choice is a sparse, arid, overgrazed mountainside. Because they survive where few others can, it is no coincidence that the best place to find these birds is in the uninhabited parts of Nevada and Utah, and the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon.
Chukars spend most of their day poking around dry, rocky landscapes, picking up seeds and eating whatever vegetation they can find. A favorite food for these birds is something called “cheatgrass,” which also has been introduced. While the introduction of Chukars may have had little environmental impact, the same cannot be said for cheatgrass. Cheatgrass successfully competes with native grasses and probably does other bad things, too. But I’m writing about birds right now and I can only focus on one thing at a time.
Even though Chukars favor dry locations, they still need to drink regularly. If the plants they eat don’t supply them with enough moisture, they must search for it. Fortunately, Chukars seem to have the ability to find water where there doesn’t appear to be any. They are often found under ground, in near total darkness, drinking in the tunnels of old gold mines. So remember, if you are ever lost in the desert and need a drink, ask a Chukar for help. Look for the ones with the gold fillings; they know where the best mines are.
Like most quail/partridges, Chukars spend nearly their entire lives on the ground. Only when there is immediate danger will they become airborne, and even then they’ll only fly short distances. Their preferred mode of transportation is walking, or running if pursued. And these birds are quite capable of running. Even with their short legs and pudgy bodies they can easily out run us humans.
When they aren’t breeding Chukars are typically found in coveys. A covey may range from a few birds to several dozen. If danger forces the covey members to scatter, they will contact each other by giving an assortment of calls. One particular call sounds like they are saying, “chukar, chukar, chukar.” Hey, I wonder if that’s where the birds get their name. I’m going to have to look that up. I’ll let you know what I find out.
The bulk of North America’s wild Chukar population can be found in the arid West, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place they are found. Chukars have been introduced to nearly every one of our fifty states, including Hawaii. They are quite common on private game preserves, where mature adults pay money for the privilege of killing one of these little birds. The Chukars that your friend saw in Pennsylvania, Barbara, are most likely birds that have escaped from a preserve. Since PA is not prime Chukar habitat, it’s unlikely they will ever reproduce a sustainable population there. And by the way, it seems the name “Chukar” has nothing to do with the birds’ call. It turns out they were named after a distant relative of the old rock and roll singer, Chubby Chukar. Well, what do you know.