Chukar partridge numbers have been extremely high in Utah the past two years. This fall, the number of these unique birds — that thrive in some of Utah’s harshest terrain — is back to normal.
“There are still lots of birds out there,” Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says on the eve of Utah’s annual chukar hunt. “You’ll just have to walk farther, between coveys. You can still have a really great hunt, but you’ll have to put in a little more effort to find the birds.”
Biologists aren’t certain why this happens, but chukars in the West follow a population cycle that lasts about nine to 10 years. The population remains relatively stable for about eight years. Then, for a single year, numbers skyrocket. The year after the spike, numbers return to average. The population will typically stay at that level until the next spike happens about eight years later.
What’s surprising to Robinson is the last spike, which lasted for two years. “We’ve never seen that before,” he says. “Chukar hunters, myself included, were definitely happy to have two years of extremely high numbers, though.”
Utah’s general chukar hunt opens Sept. 30. Before the hunts opens, DWR biologists will release chukars in some areas in the state. You can see those areas on the web.
Helicopter survey results
In late August each year, DWR biologists climb into a helicopter and fly over chukar habitat in north-central Tooele County and central Box Elder County. Robinson says flying surveys in the two counties give biologists, hunters and birdwatchers a great picture of how chukars are doing across the West Desert.
“The West Desert has the best chukar habitat in Utah,” he says.
The flight over north-central Tooele County happened Aug. 31. Biologists counted 26 chukars per square mile. In 2016, they counted a near-record 95.
In central Box Elder County, biologists counted 12 chukars per square mile. That’s down from the 33 per square mile counted in 2016. (The 33 counted was the highest number counted in Box Elder County since surveys started there in 2009.)
Again, Robinson isn’t surprised by the results. And he still expects a good chukar hunt in Utah this fall.
In addition to the chukar hunt, Utah’s gray partridge hunt also opens on Sept. 30. Gray partridge are found almost entirely in Box Elder County. In the eastern part of the county, the birds are found mostly in grain fields. In the western part, they live mostly in sagebrush habitat. Riparian corridors are especially attractive to gray partridge that live in areas covered with sagebrush.
“Another thing to remember is that gray partridge are especially attracted to edges, places where one habitat type transitions into a different type of habitat,” Robinson says. “For example, the edge of a grain field, or where sagebrush transitions into grass, can be especially good places to hunt.”
Robinson says gray partridge numbers are down slightly from last year.
Those 17 years old and younger can hunt chukar and gray partridge Sept. 23, 24 and 25, during Utah’s annual youth partridge hunt. After Sept. 25, the hunts will close until Sept. 30 when Utah’s general partridge hunt, for hunters of all ages, opens up.
Finding chukars is the first step to bagging some birds. Robinson provides the following tips:
Tip 1 — See the distribution map on page 36 of the 2017 – 2018 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. The map will show you where chukar habitat is found in Utah. The free guidebook is available at online.
Robinson says Tooele, Juab and Millard counties have the highest concentration of birds in the state. “The state’s best chukar habitat is found in the rocky, desert areas west of Interstate 15,” he says.
Other areas in Utah do hold plenty of birds, though. Robinson says the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah, and rocky river corridors in southern Utah, are some of the best. “And every year,” he says, “hunters do take birds in the rocky foothills along the Wasatch Front.”
Tip 2 — After arriving in an area that might have chukars in it, focus your efforts on steep, rocky slopes that have cheatgrass, bunch grass or sagebrush on them. These rugged, cheatgrass-covered slopes provide ideal habitat for the birds.
Tip 3 — Because chukars are very vocal, early morning is the perfect time to hunt them. “The birds feed mostly in the early morning,” Robinson says. “If you listen closely, they’ll often tip you off to their location.”
Robinson says chukars live in coveys that typically number between five to 30 birds. “When the covey is feeding,” he says, “it always posts a sentry. The sentry sits on a rock that provides it with a good view of the surrounding area. If the bird sees you, it will call out to alert the other birds. There’s a flip side to that, though: the sentry’s calling will alert you that a covey of chukars is in the area.”
Tip 4 — Finding a water source is a good idea, but chukars aren’t completely reliant on water, even early in the season. A good idea, early in the season, is to hunt the steep slopes that are above a water source. “As the season progresses,” Robinson says, “water becomes less important to chukars. Hunting near a water source isn’t as important later in the season.”
Tip 5 — When winter arrives, hunt slopes that face south. “The sun beats on these south-facing slopes in the winter,” he says. “That warms the rocks, melts the snow and attracts the chukars.”
After finding some birds, remember that chukars almost always run uphill to escape danger. “You can’t outrun them,” Robinson says, “so don’t try to chase the birds up the slope.”
Instead, try to cut off the birds’ escape route by circling around the birds and getting above them. Then, hunt down the slope towards them. “If you get above the birds,” he says, “they’ll usually stay where they are until you get close enough to shoot at them.”
When chukars flush, they almost always fly straight out from the slope before hooking to the left or the right. “Get your shots off while the birds are still in range,” he says.
After hooking to the left or right, any bird that isn’t bagged will typically fly into a group of rocks, into sagebrush or into bunch grasses. If you watch where the birds land, you’ll often have a chance for another shot.
Robinson says dogs aren’t needed to hunt chukars. “But having a dog is very helpful,” he says, “both in finding birds and retrieving the birds you hit.”
Because of the steep, rough areas where chukars live, it’s important to be in good physical shape. When you go afield, make sure you wear sturdy boots that give your ankles plenty of support.
“It’s also important to carry plenty of water,” Robinson says, “especially during the early part of the season.”