Use habitat knowledge, some advance scouting with maps, and time in the field to improve your chukar hunting
If you’ve never hunted chukar before, it’s hard to describe its habitat. Well, kind of. They like dry, tortuous, and rocky slopes, but there’s obviously more to it than that. Although they’re not a native game bird in North America, there is a certain loyalty and enthusiasm that many upland hunters show for it, perhaps because of how hard you need to work for them. Learning to identify chukar habitat can go a long way toward making your hunt successful.
About chukar habitat
Since the chukar is originally a Eurasian species, it doesn’t really have any closely related cousins in North America for the purposes of comparison. But suffice it to say that these birds like a room with a view. The species has made itself right at home in our western states’ high desert areas and rocky slopes. To find this kind of habitat, look primarily to Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, although they also occur in eastern Oregon, Washington, and a few other scattered places.
Key habitat features
It’s easy to get intimidated when looking at maps of vast western public lands and trying to nail down a specific spot to hunt chukar. But in the field, there are some pretty reliable ways that you can find these tough birds, primarily by focusing on key habitat features. Although some individual birds may surprise you in bizarre areas, these specific features will help increase your chances of flushing a covey.
- Open High Ground — in North America, chukar are usually associated with high elevation, rocky outcrops, or treacherous rim rock cliffs during the hunting season. While they do prefer generally open habitats, that doesn’t always mean barren rock. They still require nearby cover to protect themselves from predators and weather. Sure, they can hide and take refuge in clusters of rock if needed. But more often than not, dry grassy slopes, sagebrush, and short shrubby (chaparral) cover provide better escape cover for a medium-sized upland bird. These areas still offer plenty of room to detect hunters coming up-slope towards them.
- Water Sources – given its range and the elevation at which these birds typically live, water can be tough to find. Access to water is critical for chukar to survive in these arid environments. So when you start your chukar hunt, first try scouting out water sources. Larger lakes and reservoirs may be rare, but you should be able to find some small ponds, creeks, or even catchment systems that will also attract the birds. If you find an available water source in the chukar range, you can be pretty sure there will be a covey hanging out nearby. Note that the availability of water changes over the course of the season, so pay attention to the weather patterns and changing access to water.
- Food – although it might seem like it given the lore around them, chukar can’t survive on rock alone. They need quality food sources. Luckily, they don’t need all that much to get along well. As ground foragers, chukar mostly eat seeds and leaves from plants such as cheatgrass, sagebrush, Russian thistle, pinyon pine, or sunflowers, and they will also happily consume insects like grasshoppers, caterpillars, or ants. A good rule of thumb when upland hunting is to examine the bird’s crop contents when you shoot one—when you know what they’re eating, you can key in on more of that same vegetation type. But if you’re finding mostly rocky talus or scree slopes void of plant life in your area, you probably need to look elsewhere where there’s more food.
Where to look for chukar habitat
As you’ve probably read, navigating chukar country is usually no easy feat. The terrain can be tough and there are plenty of dangers involved. From getting injured on a rocky slope to navigating remote and rugged areas, chukar hunting isn’t for the unprepared, but it is definitely an exciting adventure that will push you physically and mentally. So if that sounds good to you, here are some tips to find the right areas and key in on high priority spots.
Narrowing down suitable chukar habitat
Because the west offers such a mind-boggling amount of public lands (e.g., BLM, USFS, state, etc.), you’d think it would be pretty easy to hunt chukar. Just pick any area and hunt. But the opposite can also be true. Because there is so much land to hunt on—much of which might be unsuitable for the birds—it will really help to spend time ahead of your hunt by making some calls and narrowing down your choices.
For many wildlife and conservation agencies, you can find current population estimates or previous harvests trends online. Spend a little time researching good-looking areas with increasing trends or stable populations as a starting point. Alternatively, try calling a few upland game biologists to see what they can tell you about the populations or hunting areas in general.
Field checking and hunting strategies
When you arrive at your general destination and are staring up into the hills or ridge lines, it’s time to start a bit of scouting. How does it look compared to what you thought it would look like? It may help to take a moment and glass the slopes, looking for those key habitat features such as rocky outcrops, clumps of shrubs, or any obvious drainages that might indicate water. Re-check your maps and try to pinpoint some of your pre-identified habitat features.
In terms of strategies, hunting in the mornings can be helpful when trying a new area, as that is when chukar tend to be most vocal and may reveal their locations as you approach. A good chukar hunting strategy is to zig-zag, or move diagonally, up-slope to where you might expect birds to be. Once your dogs get birdy and you start flushing a few chukar, it usually pays off to keep hunting at that elevation. If you’re hunting with a partner, you can try spreading out up- and down-slope and walk parallel across the slope, which could offer better shooting opportunities to someone when the birds flush downhill.
Where you find the birds will also vary depending on the time of the hunting season. For example, during the warmer early season or in times of drought, water will usually be the best way to reliably find coveys. But later in the season, try focusing on south-facing slopes where the snow may be shallower or melted, and the birds will seek warmth on the rocks from the sun.
While you can learn a lot from a single chukar hunting trip, it will take some time to develop the skills to know exactly where to look for them in different areas. But that’s part of the allure of any new upland species, isn’t it?
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.