Song of the Chachalaca
Shooting chachalacas isn't the hard part. Seeing them is.
By Larry D. Hodge
Sport dog eases forward, matching us step for furtive step. Perhaps 15 yards ahead, several chachalacas appear to be in the midst of a brush country rumble. Sounding like angry guinea fowl with sore throats, they rant at each other, their distinctive cha-cha-lac cries stirring more distant groups into equally noisy uproars.
This time, I think, we're going to get one.
Earl Nottingham and I have stalked within yards of several groups the last two days and are still chachalaca-less. Suddenly Sport, who shares my allergies as well as my love of hunting, explodes a sneeze that rattles her collar, her rabies tag and the thick South Texas brush. The birds fall silent and, we surmise, hop away through the trees.
We see not so much as a tail feather.
I've hunted blue quail in Big Bend arroyos so clogged with catclaw and prickly pear that hunts ended with me leaking more blood than the quarry. I've heard woodcock hunters tell of fighting their way through coverts laced with blackberry vines so thick that emerging still clothed was a victory. But nothing I've seen or heard of surpasses the density of plant matter per square meter of those South Texas plots of chachalaca land. I find myself wondering if the elusive birds might best be hunted from a howdah atop an elephant, the ultimate all-wheel-drive hunting vehicle for jungle such as this.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep indeed. We walk in shadow along tunnels bored through vegetation so thick one cannot crawl through it on hands and knees. We revel in 75-degree temperatures while the rest of Texas shivers in the 50s. Here along the Rio Grande, the part of Texas I think of as more Mexico than Texas, such temperatures in February are the norm. But huge, gnarled mesquite trees keep us completely in the shade, and cool. The only sounds are of green jays fussing and long-billed thrashers singing from high branches. The pulse of history throbs sotto voce, telling of times when this hundred-acre wood was a mere footnote in a forest stretching over thousands of square miles of South Texas instead of a conspicuous island of brush amid a sea of cultivated fields.
The plain chachalaca, about the size and shape of the drab female ring-necked pheasant, ranges from the Lower Rio Grande Valley southward, with various subspecies occurring along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico into Honduras. In the United States it is native only to Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties in Texas, although a transplanted population thrives in San Patricio County.
Once so numerous that commercial hunters supplied Brownsville markets with hundreds daily, chachalaca numbers fell as the amount of native South Texas brush converted to fields and towns rose. By 1940 chachalacas found only remnant patches of brush adjacent to resacas, inland bays and bottomlands of the Arroyo Colorado and Rio Grande. From that time until 1971, over 75 percent of remaining chachalaca habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley vanished beneath bulldozer blades. Today populations are considered to be stable, although no one has a good estimate of how many are left. The scarcity of scientific knowledge about them is matched only by the low numbers of hunters who pursue them. If you want to be alone in South Texas, hunt chachalacas.
Oddly, chachalacas — sometimes called Mexican pheasants or Mexican tree pheasants — seem to thrive in disturbed habitat like the thickets and brushlands that spring up after tropical forests are cleared. They are supremely adapted to living in tangled environs of trees and vines. While they are able to fly sufficiently far and fast that Earl and I miss what should have been easy shots at two of them, they prefer to run through trees, hopping from limb to limb. If you are lucky enough to see a group feeding, you may well have to restrain yourself from laughing, for they will perch in any position and even hang upside down to pluck berries from coma or hackberry trees.
Chachalacas adapt easily to contact with people, so much so that they throng campgrounds and other public areas in such places as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. They relish the free groceries campers put out to attract all varieties of birds. But wild chachalacas are so far removed from tame that they might as well be a totally different species. "They are not the same birds," Steve Benn says flatly. Benn manages the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area, more than two dozen parcels of land acquired for white-winged dove nesting habitat that, ironically, furnish the best remaining chachalaca habitat north of the Rio Grande as well.
Benn joined Earl and me on the Longoria Unit of Las Palomas WMA for a morning hunt. The Longoria Unit illustrates the resilient nature of these shy birds. Following revegetation projects on the area, 40 captured wild chachalacas were released on the area in 1959 and 1960. They multiplied so rapidly that by 10 years later, 283 birds had been trapped on the Longoria for restocking elsewhere. And there are still plenty of birds left to hunt.
Benn probably knows as little as any about hunting chachalacas but more than most. At least his ears, much younger than mine and not dulled by too many shotgun blasts, are able to pick up the sound of chachalacas clamoring a quarter-mile away. We move in that direction and finally, after an hour of furtive creeping down winding roads expecting any moment to see a chachalaca dash across, we hear a half-dozen or so in full cry in a tree not 15 yards distant — yet totally invisible. Steve motions me to take the lead, and I approach a bumelia tree from which boom raucous noises reminiscent of a crowd watching the last two minutes of a hard-fought basketball game. I cannot see a bird, but as Sport trots forward, the calling suddenly stops, and the flapping of wings announces their departure. I relax a bit and take another step, hoping to catch one as it hops through the trees, and the last chachalaca in the tree cackles and flies. Had I seen him, it would have been an easy shot. Shooting chachalacas isn't the hard part. Seeing them is.
Benn grins wryly at me. "This is not the kind of hunt where you say, 'I shot five boxes of shells, but I got my limit.' Probably the best way to hunt them is just to walk quietly along pasture roads. Sooner or later one will mess up and cross the road in front of you. You can't sneak up on them through the brush. It's just too thick, and you make too much noise."
Chachalaca season runs concurrently with quail season, generally from November through February. Thus it overlaps the split dove season in South Texas. "Perhaps the best time to hunt them is during the second split of the mourning dove season, from late December into early January," Benn says. "You can hunt chachalacas until you get tired of trying to get one, then go out in the open fields and hunt doves."
We circle the 20-acre patch of brush twice more, hoping to see some birds crossing the road, but they give us the slip. By this time the bacon and eggs of 6 a.m. are a distant memory. Sport and I share a bottle of water. I let her drink first, but for some reason my companions decline a drink. "Does it taste like Alpo?" Earl asks.
For all I know, it tastes like chachalaca.
A Chorus Uproarious
So obnoxious and distinctive is the chachalaca's calling that it gives the bird its name. For many years listeners thought the song contained four notes, but careful study revealed it has only three. When one bird — usually a male — emits the raucous cha-cha-lac, any other bird around chimes in on the second note, making it sound as though one bird has sung four notes. The birds are especially prone to group vocalizations in the early morning and evening hours and on moonlit nights.
Since the birds prefer to sing from the treetops and the calling of one group usually ignites others in earshot, the noises they make have been described by observers as "loud and simply indescribable," "deafening," "ear-splitting" and "a pandemonium." The uproar they produce is said to rank with that of another tropical resident, the howler monkey. Male chachalacas are uniquely equipped for noise-making: Their tracheas are doubled, much like the body of a saxophone. The longer air passage lends a deeper timbre to the males' calls and no doubt contributes to their volume.
Reflections on Hunting Chachalacas
Our best chance at bagging a chachalaca came on the Carricitos Unit of Las Palomas WMA. While we watched the thick brush to the right of a road we were walking, a chachalaca launched from a tree in a clearing to our left and headed into the brush, taking us totally by surprise. We both missed it. The sound of our shots spooked a second bird from the same tree. It flew behind us with the same result: two hunters with smoking guns, dumbfounded looks, and no bird.
On the way back to the hotel, I thought about those two birds and wondered if they were the only ones on that unit — chachalacas are relatively scarce in Texas. If that was the case, I sure didn't want to be the one to shoot one of them. Later, over supper, Earl volunteered similar feelings. Sometimes I think — no, I know — that the best hunters are the ones who sympathize with the game they hunt. Call those feelings foolish if you will, but they are a symptom of respect for the animal, and that simple emotion will, more often than not, be the foundation for ethical actions in the field. In a curious contradiction, we love what we try to kill, and what seems even more curious unless you have experienced it, often you take more pleasure in your failure to harvest an animal than you do in its conquest.
As long as the moon rises over South Texas, I hope there are chachalacas to sing it up.
Larry D. Hodge is executive editor of Texas Parks and Wildlife Press and wildlife editor of this magazine.