Forget the pear trees
Get to know behavior, hunting methods for chukar, gray partridges
Though the season for singing about partridges in pear trees is behind us, there is some time remaining in the Eastern Washington gray partridge and chukar hunting season, so we wanted to share a closer look at pursuing these birds and their biology.
Jan. 18 marks the last chance for chukar and gray (Hungarian) partridge hunting this season, so we’ve gathered information from WDFW biologists for the benefit of both seasoned and new hunters making a late-season push.
Hunting chukar partridge
Chukars are native to Asia and Southern Europe, and they thrive in dry, rocky, steep country with an emphasis on steep. Although now found through the western United States and in parts of British Columbia and Mexico, some of the best chukar hunting is found in the Snake River region of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
An adult chukar measures 13 to 14 inches long and weighs about three quarters of pound, a little larger than a valley quail and a little smaller than a ruffed grouse. Also known as red-legged partridge and rock partridge, they’re bluish-gray on the back, wings, and breast with a buff belly and flanks marked with vertical bars of black and chestnut. A black band extends across the eyes and down the side of the head, neck, and upper breast. The throat is white while the beak, legs, and feet are red.
Typical chukar habitat features cliffs, bluffs, canyon walls, talus slopes, and other generally vertical real estate. They not only roost in steep, rocky areas, but feed on grains, seeds, forbs, and grasses they find among and around the rock piles and cliffs. Brush provides nesting cover in spring and shade from the summer heat, so sage, greasewood, and other bushy vegetation is also an important part of their habitat. Although they don’t require as much water as other upland bird species, there’s usually a water source of some kind fairly close to where chukars congregate.
Red-legs will sometimes move down to flatter ground to feed at the edge of wheat or hay fields, but chukar hunting is usually a matter of hiking, climbing, and crawling up and down steep slopes and around the edges of rock outcroppings and canyon walls. Cooler nights might prompt chukars to roost on the warmer south-facing slopes, so these may be the places to explore first thing in the morning. Chukars often feed throughout the morning and then move to shady slopes and draws, dusting sites, and water holes during mid-day. They’ll usually begin moving back toward steeper roosting areas late in the afternoon.
Later in the fall, as snow begins to accumulate in Eastern Washington’s chukar haunts, red-legs tend to congregate in areas that are relatively free of snow. Pursuing these birds over snow and ice-covered rocks on their home turf can be risky, but also productive.
While legging it out all day and flushing coveys wherever you find them is standard chukar-hunting procedure, there are other ways to find birds. One is to scan distant slopes with binoculars, looking for feeding or roosting birds, then getting into position for a stalk.
Listening for the clucks and cackles that give the chukar its name is another way to locate birds. Like quail, they call to help maintain contact among members of a covey, and attentive hunters can use those sounds to pinpoint the whereabouts of birds. You can also use a chukar call to draw a response and get the conversation started.
Whenever possible, approach chukars from above. While they tend to fly downhill, they usually run uphill, and they’re about as likely to run as they are to fly, whether approached by a dog or a hunter. Red-legs are notorious for running out of shooting range before rising, and they can get up a hillside much faster than you can. Chasing a covey of runners up the side of a mountain rarely produces a good shooting opportunity.
Something else to keep in mind is the high probability that at any given time of day most birds will be at roughly the same elevation. If you flush a covey at one point along a hillside, move uphill a little and continue along that line in hopes of being just above the next covey you encounter.
Chukars have a reputation of being easily spooked birds that don’t hold well for a dog, but as in any upland bird hunting, a good dog is going to find chukars that even the best two-legged hunter will overlook. A close-working pointer is a good choice as a chukar dog, but a pointer or flusher trained to work below birds and flush them back up toward you is even better. Keep in mind that the steep hills and cliffs that make up chukar country pose a serious threat to undisciplined or unmanageable dogs.
If you don’t have a bird dog or choose to hunt without one, you can still take chukars. One tactic is to spot, stalk and rush a covey. Another is to do a stop-and-go push through likely looking chukar spots, moving quickly while walking, then stopping for 30 seconds near cover to make hiding birds lose their nerve and flush.
Guns and ammunition
Both 20-gauge and 12-gauge guns are good choices for chukar hunting. The 20-gauge’s advantage is being smaller and lighter while the bigger 12-gauge’s benefit is more shot in the pattern when you’re trying to hit a bird that flies fast. Chukars don’t hold as tightly as some other birds, so more shots tend to be in the 30- to 40-yard range, or longer. Many chukar hunters like a modified choke or, if they shoot a double-barrel, a modified/full or improved/full combination.
Sling-equipped shotguns aren’t too common outside waterfowl-hunting circles, but a chukar hunter might consider that option. A removable shoulder sling can come in handy while climbing up and down the steep terrain that these birds inhabit.
Like quail and gray partridge, it doesn’t take a heavy load of large shot to bring down a chukar. The more shot in the load, though, the better the chances that a few will find their mark. On the other hand, longer shots are the norm with chukars, so a hunter has to weigh the advantage of more small shot against the added knock-down power at greater distance of larger shot. A good compromise might be a 1 ¼-ounce load of size 5 or 6 shot in a 3-inch 20-gauge or 2 ¾-inch 12-gauge shell.
When flushed, chukars usually fly downhill, so unlike other upland birds, they’re dropping, not rising, when you shoot at them. Old habits die hard, especially in shooting, so if you’re used to shooting pheasant, quail, and grouse, you’re very likely to shoot over your first several chukars. It’s difficult to practice dropping shots at a trap range or sporting clays course because by the time a clay bird from a trap starts to drop, it’s often out of range. One option is to find a place where you can shoot downhill and have someone throw clay birds for you by hand or with a hand-thrower. When you’re shooting at the real thing though, the best advice is to take a little more time with your shot, swinging on the bird an additional second or two to get the hang of downhill shooting.
Hunting gray (Hungarian) partridge
Making their American debut in the late 1800s, these European imports were first released in Washington and California but are now found in huntable numbers in about a dozen Western and Midwestern states and most Canadian provinces. The first birds released in this country came from Hungary, so the gray partridge is also commonly known as Hungarian partridge or Hun.
Gray partridge, which grow to just over a foot long and weigh about three-quarters of a pound, eat both cultivated grains and a variety of weed seeds, as well as clover and other green, leafy material. As is the case with pheasants and other upland bird species, young partridge feed heavily on crickets, ants, grasshoppers, and other insects. They often inhabit the “margins” where agricultural fields and native shrub-steppe habitat meet. Classic Hungarian partridge country might be a field of corn or wheat stubble bordered or intersected by a couple of brushy draws or a gently-sloping hillside dotted with sagebrush. A small stream, pond or wetland nearby would likely make such a spot even more attractive to a covey of Huns.
To most hunters, the gray partridge doesn’t appear very gray at all. That’s because they’re most likely to see the bird’s rust-colored tail and reddish-brown back and wings as it flies straight away from them. If the bird is crossing, you might see the chestnut and gray bars along its flanks. A horseshoe-shaped mark of dark chestnut covers the lower half of the breast.
Like other upland species, young of the year partridge provide most of the shooting opportunities. Also like other birds, Hungarian partridge production fluctuates greatly from year to year. A warm, dry spring usually produces a good Hun crop; a cold, wet spring very few, and we of course have a lot of cold, wet springs here in Washington.
Gray partridge are the least pursued of Washington’s upland bird species, and hunters harvest only about 5,000 gray partridge a year, far fewer than any other upland bird. Also, it’s a safe bet that many, if not most, are taken incidentally by hunters targeting pheasant, quail, and chukar. If you want to target Hungarian partridge though, there are ways to improve your chances.
First, cover a lot of ground. You won’t find dozens of birds in any one place; population densities simply aren’t that high, anywhere. Your best bet is to cover miles of decent partridge habitat in hopes of flushing a couple of coveys in a day. A well-conditioned, wide-ranging pointing dog is an immense help, and two well-conditioned, wide-ranging pointing dogs are just about twice as helpful. A gray partridge hunter, of course, must also be well-conditioned and wide-ranging.
Huns like to feed around the edges of grain fields and in patches of seed-bearing weeds and grasses. They tend to roost, hide and rest in hay fields, tall grass, brush patches, and along fence lines. All the aforementioned places then are good places to look for birds. On windy days they may take shelter behind tree lines, fence rows, boulders, even buildings, or in narrow draws and on lee hillsides.
Huns tend to be more skittish than quail and other upland species, and might run or flush wild when a dog or hunter approaches. Some veteran partridge hunters prefer and recommend dogs that are trained to lock up on point as soon as they get a noseful of Hun scent, even if it’s some distance from a bird, rather than get too close and spook birds into flushing out of range. When a dog does lock up on Huns, the hunter should move in fast to shorten the shooting distance before the birds fly.
When flushed, gray partridge usually don’t fly high, but they might fly far, especially later in the season when they’ve had some hunting pressure. What’s more, after they’ve been flushed once, they’re likely to flush farther in front of you or your dog on the second approach, and still farther out on the third. In other words, it’s a good idea to do all you can to make your first opportunity count. Although flushed birds usually stay together, the good news is that if you are able to locate singles or doubles after the first rise, they tend to hold better for a dog than coveys will.
Guns and ammunition
Gray partridge aren’t big or particularly hard to knock down, but they are very good at distancing themselves from the end of a shotgun barrel in a hurry. An ounce and an eighth or ounce and a quarter load of size 6 or 7 ½ lead shot from a 2 ¾-inch 12-gauge shell or 3-inch 20-gauge shell will do the job for the 30- to 45-yard shots you’re likely to get on Huns.
If you must decide between a 20-gauge and a half-pound-heavier 12-gauge, remember that hunting Huns is usually a matter of covering lots of ground in search of widely scattered coveys. That extra 8 ounces of shotgun might feel more like 8 pounds by the middle of the day, not only while it’s being lugged around but also when it’s time to shoulder it and swing on a bird.
As for choke, an improved cylinder or modified choke will do the job if your first shot is a close one, but Huns get out to full-choke range quickly. For that reason, a double-barrel gun with a modified/full choke combination might be a good choice for Hungarian partridge.
A covey of Huns almost always rises in unison, so job one is to pick out a target and swing on it as quickly as possible. Yes, it may be tempting to “flock shoot” that reddish-brown cloud of whirring wings, but any veteran shotgunner will tell you that rarely produces good results. Lock onto a bird as you shoulder your gun and try to forget that there are any other birds in the air until yours drops (or flies out of range). With Hungarian partridge, trying for — or even thinking about — scoring a double usually produces no birds at all.
And remember that since your target is usually flying straight away rather than quartering or crossing, the best lead is probably going to be under the bird.
Good luck out there!
We hope this information helps you get a leg up on chukar and gray partridge in the late season or in your hunts in the 2021–22 season.
Do you have your own tips to share on hunting these upland game birds? Feel free to post them in the comments at the bottom of this post!