We’re blessed, throughout the province of British Columbia, to have so many magnificent, even noble, specimens of the animal and avian kingdoms close at hand. Bears, moose, and cougars; eagles, hawks, and osprey: all these and more delight residents and visitors alike (although you don’t want o get too up close and personal with a lot of them). The chukar partridge, alas, is not on this list of majestic creatures.
Chukar partridges (proper name Alectoris chukar) are not native to this area. They’re not native to my area (Ashcroft) either, but were introduced there from Asia at some time in the past and evidently decided they liked the neighbourhood and would stick around for a bit. I’m glad they did, for I have a huge fondness for these hapless birds, which strike me as the feathered equivalent of the shy, awkward, and clumsy kid we all knew in high school; the one who just wanted to get through each day unnoticed, but would then trip over a desk or knock over a stack of books and draw everyone’s attention. The default mode of a chukar seems to be mild panic; not unlike that high school student, who always wore a slightly hunted look, as if wondering from which quarter disaster would strike next.
Now the chukar is not unattractive; indeed, it’s a plump and comely bird, in a somewhat “I’m just trying to blend in” sort of way; something it does very well, being precisely the colouring of the rocks and dirt and grasses in which it lives. But its cry! Many birds have beautiful, melodious songs that gladden the heart when they’re heard; the kind of song that inspires odes from poets, and make all those who hear it pause in appreciation. The chukar, alas, has never inspired anything of the sort. Its cry—a sort of strangled squawking—makes it sound like a small hen trying to pass a very large egg that’s made up entirely of numerous right angles, and it rises quickly from that mild panic of which I spoke to a full-blown hysteria that makes it sound as if it’s seconds away from perishing.
This is most apparent when a chukar manages, against all odds, to do something out of the ordinary. They can fly, after a fashion and for short distances, but they don’t appear to be entirely comfortable with the process, or understand precisely how this whole “flight” thing works. Now and again, however, one will get itself up onto a neighbouring roof or garage peak, and will sit there for a moment, looking rather startled. Then the cries start, rising in volume and intensity; the soundtrack, I like to think, to an interior monologue that goes something like this:
“Well, I did it; I’m not sure how, or why, but . . . wow, yes, it really is a nice view from up here, but gosh, that ground looks a long way down, and I’ll bet it’s hard, I wouldn’t want to fall off—please don’t let me fall off—and . . . how did I get up here again? I can’t remember! And more importantly, how do I get down again? Someone please help me, please, oh I don’t want to die I’m too young what will happen to the children . . .”
Their colouring makes them masters of camouflage, and more than one hiker or horseback rider has been startled, while traversing ground that seems devoid of wildlife, to flush a number of them out from seemingly nowhere. One summer there appeared, from the noise, to be a chukar convention going on in the empty lot beside us, but when I went out on the deck to look nary a chukar could be seen. I must have made a sound, however, for suddenly more than a dozen plump, feathered bodies exploded into motion and scuttled off in numerous directions before hunkering down again and immediately disappearing from view, so that the scene was still and apparently without life.
Even more amusing is when they cross the road. (Q: Why does the chukar cross the road? A: There’s no point asking, they don’t know either.) There can be as many as 18 of them at once, crossing the road in front of your car at a variety of angles, none of them the most direct way from Point A to Point B. And there’s always one that gets halfway across, then panics and turns back, apparently reluctant to venture out into the great unknown that’s 25 feet away.
So you can have your bald eagles and your osprey and your hawks; majestic birds, all of them, beyond a doubt, and deserving of respect. I am well content with the humble chukar, that most modest of our feathered friends. But please, guys: leave the singing to the meadowlarks.
It’s with some sadness that I take my leave of Vanderhoof, where I’ve been based, and Fort St. James, where I’ve spent a lot of of time over the last few weeks. I didn’t really know what to expect, when I was asked to come up here and edit the Express (for one week) and the Courier (for three) while both were between editors. Well, it’s been wonderful, and for that I have to thank the many people in the Fort who made me feel welcome and helped me out with information and stories. “Don’t be a stranger,” said one person, upon finding out I was leaving. I won’t be.