The desert game bird you’ve probably never heard about
Its name may sound like a fun catch phrase or dance move, but the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is actually a tree-dwelling desert game bird. It is the only member of its family to inhabit the United States and, in fact, it barely occurs in the U.S. at all. With a little research and some luck, it is possible to find this unique game bird in Texas. Read on to learn about the bird itself, its preferred habitat, and potential hunting opportunities.
Description and life history of the chachalaca
The plain chachalaca is roughly the same size as a chicken or pheasant, measuring about 20 to 22 inches in length and weighing 1 to 2 pounds (NatureServe 2020). It is a sleek bird covered in brown, tan, and olive-colored feathers. Its tail is quite long for its body, and is generally darker brown on top with mild iridescent blues/greens, and white or cream-colored underneath and on the tip (All About Birds 2020). Its dark gray legs are long and featherless. The chachalaca makes a raucous three-part call that is very distinct; these birds are often heard well before being seen.
While many upland game birds we chase prefer to nest and dwell on the ground, the plain chachalaca prefers to spend most of its time in trees. As young birds, their feet and even wings are adapted to cling well to branches, and their long tails likely help them with balance on the limb. While they can fly short distances, they prefer to navigate through the tree tops whenever possible. Their breeding season is generally tied to the start of the rainy season at whatever latitude they are living in (NatureServe 2020). Nests are often loosely constructed in tree forks or vine tangles anywhere from 5 to 35 feet above ground (All About Birds 2020). Hens usually lay two to four creamy white eggs between April and May in Texas, and the hens incubate the eggs by themselves for 22 to 26 days (NatureServe 2020; National Audubon Society 2020). After hatching, both parents care for the young by feeding them regurgitated food at first. After fledging, the young typically stay with their parents and these small family groups stay together until the next breeding season.
Being an arboreal (tree-dwelling) species, the chachalaca tends to feed heavily on leaves, buds, seeds, berries, and insects that they can pluck from the tree tops (National Audubon Society 2020; All About Birds 2020). Using their long tails for balance, their strong feet for gripping, and their long necks for reaching, they easily navigate through branches to glean food. Where they overlap with homes and neighborhoods, they will also happily eat bird seed, garden plants, and fruits. Near farms, they will consume waste grain (e.g., corn, milo, etc.) and vegetables. Natural food sources include Mexican ash, Texas sabal palm, southern hackberry, honey mesquite, cedar elm, coyotillo, anacua, bushy bluestem, weeping juniper, lantana, and fruit from zapote and bully trees (All About Birds 2020).
Because chachalacas occur in tree tops most of the time, predators are somewhat limited. Smaller mammals like coyotes or foxes may occasionally catch one unaware on the ground, but aerial predators like owls and hawks often target them more. When confronted, chachalaca family groups will often band together to mob and harass predators by calling loudly and gathering around the predator (All About Birds 2020).
Range and habitat of the chachalaca
The chachalaca’s range in the United States is very limited. It currently only naturally occurs in the southernmost point of Texas (i.e., the Lower Rio Grande Valley). It has also been introduced to the Sapelo, Blackbeard, and Little St. Simons islands in Georgia. Globally, this species occurs down the Gulf Coast of Mexico and throughout much of Central America.
When it comes to identifying specific habitat for the plain chachalaca, a good place to start is by looking in riparian areas, stream corridors, and Tamaulipan brushlands. Thorny forests draped in Spanish moss with well-developed understories offer the right structure that chachalacas need for breeding, foraging, and protection. According to All About Birds (2020), important tree and shrub species for the chachalaca include sabal palm, black willow, coyote willow, live oak, granjeno, southern hackberry, cedar elm, tenaza, Texas huisache, Texas ebony, Wright’s catclaw, guajillo, tepeguaje, honey mesquite, retama, Texas paloverde, mescal bean, colima, western soapberry, chapot, Rio Grande ash, and anacua.
Conservation issues for the chachalaca
The plain chachalaca is listed as globally secure and of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List (NatureServe 2020). Because of its limited distribution and range in Texas, the bird’s breeding population is listed as vulnerable in the state; however, there is still a hunting season for them. While the global breeding population is estimated to be around 2 million birds, fewer than 2,500 of them are thought to breed in the U.S. (All About Birds 2020). Primary threats to this species include habitat loss or fragmentation.
Hunting opportunities for the chachalaca
Because their distribution in the U.S. is so limited, Texas is the only state where you can find and hunt them. Chachalacas may only be hunted in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties (Texas Parks and Wildlife 2020). For public land hunting, you can find these birds on five different units (Baird, Anacua, Carricitos, Longoria, and Tucker) of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area.
Equipment and bag limits
In Texas, the chachalaca can be legally hunted beginning in late October or early November. The chachalaca hunting season usually runs through mid- to late-February (Texas Parks and Wildlife 2020). The daily bag limit is 5 birds (with a 15 bird possession limit), although finding these secretive birds can be a challenge.
You’ll need a resident or non-resident hunting license, an upland game bird endorsement, and an annual public hunting permit if you plan to hunt public lands (Texas Parks and Wildlife 2020). As far as hunting gear, a 12, 16, or 20 gauge shotgun is all you need, as these birds aren’t very large. Due to their dense, thorny environment, go prepared with some thick brush chaps, good boots, and possibly snake chaps too. As always in arid regions, make sure you have a good supply of water with you.
Chachalaca hunting techniques
When it comes to hunting the chachalaca, you have a couple of options. Start by listening in promising areas for their telltale calls, particularly early in the morning. This can help you focus on specific spots. When you locate some birds, you can post up at an opening between brush patches and hope for a bird to fly between them, or you can walk the brushy edges and look for stationary birds in the trees.
Since these birds are usually reluctant fliers, your wingshooting opportunities may be limited and you may have to take some shots at birds on a limb. This can be a mental challenge for some upland hunters who have learned to avoid that, but it comes with the territory. Pointing dogs aren’t particularly useful on this kind of hunt due to the bird’s arboreal nature, but retrievers can be good for going in after your shot and finding the birds. Many people swear that chachalacas associate with green jays, so if you see green jays around, you should have a chance to see some chachalacas too.
If you’re inclined to try novelty hunts, head south this fall to try hunting this rare U.S. species. While it may not be an extremely exciting hunt, per se, it’s definitely a unique one.
All About Birds. 2020. Plain Chachalaca. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Plain_Chachalaca/id
NatureServe. 2020. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
National Audubon Society. 2020. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/plain-chachalaca
Texas Parks and Wildlife. 2020. South Texas Wildlife Management. Chachalacas. Accessed at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/habitats/southtx_plain/upland_birds/chachalaca.phtml
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.