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Fleeting Moments with Evaporating Birds

Danielle Prewett with Chukar

 

Chukar Partridge have some nasty habits. They hang out in lofty spaces, the rockier and more rugged the better. Chukar are a non-native species introduced to North America from Pakistan between the turn of the century up until the 1970s. Wild populations established a foothold across the Great Basin where they now thrive. Many game preserves outside of their wild range release Chukar because of the relative ease to raise in captivity. This results in a distorted view of the red-legged birds to people unfamiliar with their wild tendencies. But by nature these birds are cliff dwellers.

Choose to hunt them from the bottom up and they will race bird dogs and hunters up the mountain, weaving between boulders and talus only taking wing at last resort. If you’re lucky enough to find a two-track to elevation, hunting them from the top down, they will flush wild off a precipice and offer the most awkward looking shots imaginable. Follow ups then require dropping elevation and repeating, dropping and repeating – an upland blender that turns legs and will to mush, breaks bird dogs, humbles the mighty.

I prefer the former because at least when hiking ever upward, the accomplishment of the climb can diminish the humbling of the birds. The view and exhaustion offer a substantial consolation prize.

I like to watch the dogs work. They have become accustomed to staying in visual touch with me. It is how we have always hunted regardless of the terrain. I watch their body language for clues of birds trying to evade us. They watch me for a general sense of direction. This is likely a huge disadvantage while chasing Chukar. Instead of unleashing long-legged, rangy beasts that swallow huge chunks of ground while being tracked via satellite, my dogs require participation. They have no intention of going anywhere unless I show a willingness to go there with them.

There are other ways to pursue Chukar but the purest form, the Devil’s Game in their environment where they have all the advantage, feels like it offers the biggest payout. This is what draws me in, the challenge, not visions of tailgates full of birds.

The dogs and I have played the game many times and have yet to leave slopes believing we’ve gotten the better of the birds. Most of the time I’m just happy to make it off the mountain in one piece. The chase is addicting. I can be lost in it, consumed with climbing ever upward. It is a sensory ignitor: physical exertion, mentally taxing, hostile with brief moments of elation. It has it all. And it is completely draining.

Friends have heard my stories of the triumph and torture and somehow are convinced to partake. Possibly drawn by the challenge, the chance to redefine success or test boundaries, I can only guess. Or maybe they just think I’m full of shit. I certainly hope I don’t romanticize the torture. It’s real and it’s not for everyone.

But the addition of friends to these once solo adventures reveals a new vice that may be even more habit-forming: leading companions into wild places in pursuit of the wildest birds and watching them tackle demons. The elation of a hard-won bird raised skyward can only be fully comprehended by those who have shared that mountain. Those tales are destined for recount around the fire roasting the day’s vanquished foes.

The quest to reach a summit with the dogs is gratifying. But the top of the mountain will always be there. The chance to show others it exists is a fleeting moment. And the birds hidden in the crevices and evaporating uphill only come to committed hands.

**Photos by Steve Derr

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