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A Mocking of Chukars

March 31, 2010

We stand at the foot of West Mountain, looking for chukars. This is ideal habitat. West Mountain rises steeply above us, a great pile of loose rocks and dirt, it’s dry and precipitous flanks speckled with cheat grass and an occasional bush or juniper. Although it is midday we can hear chukars as soon as we exit our vehicles. I try to persuade the group that hearing the birds is sufficient but they will have none of it. We want to see them, they assert. I sigh to myself and murmur assent, hoping no one can detect the resignation in my voice.

Hearing chukars is easy. They sound like chickens that have been given an obscenely unhealthy dose of caffeine. The volume of their call is equally remarkable. A few summers back, a chukar adopted our chimney as its pre-dawn roost. If you have problems waking in the morning, you don’t need an alarm clock. You need a chukar.

You might think that spotting a brightly colored bird the size of a cantaloupe would be easy. You would be wrong. Finding the birds can be fiendishly difficult. Utah imported chukars from Turkey and raised and released 186,000 of them between 1951 and 1958. They have since proliferated. You hear them in most of the desert ranges of the Great Basin. But their special ability to blend with their habitat well protects them from golden eagles, coyotes, and other hunters.

Nearly a dozen pairs of binoculars and four expensive spotting scopes scrutinize the rocky slope. It is apparent from their calls that there are at least three chukars, but where? We examine every rock on the mountain before us, every bush, every clump of grass, every twig, checking and rechecking each other’s efforts. Fifteen minutes pass, then thirty, and forty-five. The birds are moving, they’re not far from us, but dammit, where are they? I find myself feeling philosophical. Are these clucking chukars, or are they chuckling cluckers? They seem to laugh at our inability to find them. At sixty minutes our group splits, half walking transversely across the slope, in the vicinity of one of the calls, the other half holding its position. Suddenly, a dozen yards in front of the moving scrimmage line, we see a chukar walking calmly but determinedly away from them, zig-zagging from one bush to the next, at all times keeping the brush between it and its pursuers. Those who remained can see it clearly, but the scrimmagers mostly cannot. Those below yell encouragement, but the hillside finally becomes impassible and the scrimmagers must stop.

A murder of crows, a charm of goldfinches, a gaggle of geese, an exaltation of larks. A covey of partridges, but in my opinion, I think there is perhaps a better collective noun for chukars.

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