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A Bird's Life


Growing up, fall undoubtably meant one thing would unfailingly happen: My father would load up his shotgun and disappear into the desert for up to a week.

No, it's not some creepy Idaho-isolationist thing, just a man and his gun. Like so many others, my father is a bird hunter. My mother long ago accepted these extended autumnal absences—and I think secretly enjoys them—as my father gathers with his hunting buddies to walk the hills, sit around the campfire and tell the tallest of the tall tales.

He would always come back with some chukars, and in good years, a pheasant or two, but in recent years, it's been harder to call a day in the field successful. It's in no way related to my father's aim (which is pretty damn good—and that's a totally unbiased statement) but to the number of birds.

In the last two years, upland birds have been hit with a combination punch of factors that have lead to near-record population lows, but biologists are still optimistic about the future.

"It's not one of those end-of-the-earth, horrible, horrible things with chukars," said Jon Rachael, regional wildlife manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Fish and Game officials conduct routine bird counts in two areas of Southwestern Idaho; annually in a 12-square-mile area near Hells Canyon and biennially in an equally sized area near Lucky Peak. In 2005, which boasted the second-highest number since recording began in 1984, researchers counted 2,085 birds in the Hells Canyon area, or 174 per square mile. The highest count on record was in 1987, with 2,652 birds, or 221 per square mile.

This year, only 453 birds were counted in the same area, or 38 per square mile.

But before the bird-apocalypse theories get going, Rachael said there are some very natural and very cyclical causes for the dramatic decrease in population, at least among chukars.

"[Chukars are] vulnerable to weather, and of particular [importance] is the timing of the weather," he said.

The 2006-2007 winter was a dry one, continuing the pattern of drought in the region. But this lack of precipitation led to fewer bugs hatching in the spring, which left little of the protein-rich, calorie-packed food source chukar and other upland bird chicks depend on. Without the tasty little bugs, the survival rate of the year's chicks was very low, Rachael said.

Then, the already decreased number of birds faced what turned out to be a rough winter in 2007-2008. The long, relatively wet winter took its toll on even adult birds, leaving fewer birds alive to nest in the spring.

While the spring conditions this year were far better than the previous year, Rachael said there were simply fewer birds to take advantage of them.

"Weather drives the system," he said.

But the good news is that chukars are feathery little survivors.

"They're very resilient," Rachael said. "They can turn things around quite quickly."

Typically, chukar clutches are large, and with favorable conditions, the population can increase dramatically in a short period of time.

"In just a couple of years [they could be] back in great shape," Rachael said.