Often heard, infrequently seen, the plain chachalaca is a bird of paradox. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, it’s classified as a game bird in Texas, even though hardly anybody hunts it. About the size of a scrawny backyard chicken, the chachalaca are easy enough to find if you know where to look, thanks to its “raucous, ear-splitting chorus” of squawks and squeals, clucks and cackles. And yet, for all the racket they make, chachalacas—sometimes nicknamed Mexican tree pheasants—are exceptionally challenging to hunt, demanding hair-trigger reflexes and more than a little luck.
Their grayish heads and drab, olive-brown bodies—they are, after all, “plain” chachalacas and not one of the fancier varieties—provide ideal camouflage for the Tamaulipan thornscrub of South Texas, where chachalacas spend their days feasting on berries and bugs on the ground or along mid-story tree limbs. Unlike popular game birds such as quail and dove, these fowl won’t take flight above the brush when flushed. Instead, they dart into the safety of dense thickets where larger predators can’t follow. In those moments, while hidden in the shadows, the calls of “cha-cha-lac! cha-cha-lac!” can seem almost like taunts. If a flock of chachalacas moves into an overgrown lot in your neighborhood, they can be downright obnoxious. The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, uses “chachalaca” as a mild insult for his political opponents.
“They’re funny birds,” said Robert Perez, a biologist who supervises the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Upland Game Bird Program. Perez likes to hunt quail. The prospect of targeting a chachalaca had never occurred to him. Then he took over the game bird program in 2008, and people kept asking him to describe the flavor of chachalaca meat. He had no idea. “It’s your bird, in your program, and you don’t know what it tastes like?” Perez recalled thinking. “Hmm. That’s a problem.”
In late autumn 2012, Perez and a few hunting companions drove south from his home in La Vernia, just east of San Antonio, to the Longoria Unit of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area near Harlingen, one of the few public tracts in Texas that chachalacas are known to frequent. (The hunting season runs from late October through the end of February in Texas’s four southernmost counties: Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy; shooting chachalacas elsewhere in Texas is illegal, although the birds are occasionally reported as far north as Alice and the Coastal Bend.)
Twenty minutes before dark, Perez heard a flock near the edge of the Longoria tract’s 373 acres. “Those sons of guns came right in and were looking at us,” he said. From the parking lot, Perez shot a bird and saw it fall. He then crawled on his hands and knees beneath an all-but-impenetrable canopy of Texas ebony, honey mesquite, and other thorny trees, shrubs, and vines, where he felt around blindly until he found his kill. It was a tough retrieve, but of the hunting Perez thought: “This is going to be so easy.”
Over two more days of hunting, he and his friends never saw another chachalaca.
Although Perez hasn’t tried to bag a second one, he has become something of a chachalaca guide, leading hunts for other game management professionals who want to check the bird off their bucket list before they retire. “It’s the thing that a guy does at the end of his hunting career,” Perez said. “He’s shot all these different game birds across the country, and if he can say he went down to the very tip of Texas and harvested a chachalaca, he’s unique among game bird hunters.”
Just don’t expect to come back from a chachalaca hunt with an entertaining story for your buddies around the campfire, Perez added. “You didn’t take your dog, and it wasn’t a beautiful morning. The sun wasn’t setting,” he said, describing scenes from a more idyllic hunt. “You have to leave all that stuff out. But you can say, ‘I did it.’”
I had never shot a chachalaca. Heck, I didn’t even know you could hunt chachalacas until this assignment came along. I’d heard the birds’ cacophonous calls only once—although I didn’t lay eyes on them—while strolling the native gardens of Quinta Mazatlan, an urban bird and plant sanctuary in McAllen.
With scant hope that we’d actually see a chachalaca in the wild, Perez and I met at the Longoria Unit early one overcast evening this past December. A country road splits the nature preserve in two. On both sides of FM 506, a heavily overgrown footpath loops through the virgin thornscrub, a pocket of green surrounded by fields lying fallow in the winter.
“It gets pretty thick in here,” Perez said after we’d begun our hike into the western section of the preserve. He pointed ahead. “Last time, there was a roost where the trail turns, and we heard quite a few. I’ll play a call and see if we get a response.”
Perez blasted a few pre-recorded chachalaca calls through a portable speaker in a pouch slung over his shoulder (a legal practice in Texas). In response, little songbirds chattered angrily, and a hawk swooped overhead. As we crept forward, we heard rustling and the sound of prey flushing out of sight.
The population of chachalacas in South Texas is a bit of a mystery, said Tony Henehan, a TPWD wildlife biologist who’s based in the Rio Grande Valley. “There has not been much research into chachalacas in recent decades,” he said. “We don’t know much about them, unfortunately.” Habitat loss throughout the twentieth century appears to have taken a toll on their numbers, he added, but hunting the birds occurs so infrequently, and so often results in failure and frustration, that hunters seldom reduce their numbers, nor help in reporting on them.
Chachalacas are reduced to living in overgrown lots in residential neighborhoods and the occasional tract of wilderness. But, offering a tantalizing clue to their former abundance, they were once found in numbers great enough to support a commercial harvest, according to a U.S. Army report in 1878.
“These birds are much hunted for the Brownsville market,” wrote James C. Merrill, a military surgeon moonlighting as a birder, in Notes on the Ornithology of Southern Texas, “though their flesh is not particularly good, and the body is very small for the apparent size of the bird.” Merrill seems to have not been a fan of the chachalaca’s trademark call. “During the day, unless rainy or cloudy, the birds are rarely seen or heard; but shortly before sunrise and sunset, they mount to the topmost branch of a dead tree, and make the woods ring with their discordant notes,” he wrote. “Easily domesticated, they become troublesomely familiar, and are decided nuisances when kept about a house.” Their hoarse cries, he added, were “the first thing heard by the traveler on awakening in the morning.”
Ranging as far south as Nicaragua, the plain chachalaca is the only member of the chachalaca family found in the United States. There are nearly a dozen other species, from the speckled chachalaca of the Amazon to the white-bellied chachalaca of tropical Central American forests, and they’re closely related to curassows and guans, also of South and Central America.
In South Texas, the plain chachalaca had dwindled until the 1980s, when some were captured, transported, and released on several ranches and wildlife areas—including the Longoria—and as far north as the Welder Wildlife Foundation and Refuge near Sinton, where they aren’t hunted, but birders still report frequent sightings. Chachalacas can also be seen at feeders in public areas such as a birding mecca near the Rio Grande in Weslaco. In 1923, a wealthy automobile and aviation magnate also established flocks of plain chachalacas on Georgia’s coastal Sapelo Island, where they remain to this day.
Back at the Longoria wildlife preserve last December, the light was fading and Perez and I had nearly completed our loop through the brush. In an hour or two of crashing along the overgrown trail, we’d come upon the tallest mesquite tree we’d ever seen, among other impressive South Texas specimens from the anacua to the desert olive. Perez filled his shirt pocket with little red peppers from a chiltepin bush that towered above us. We’d also heard a few chachalacas, but we’d yet to see one.
Perez and I were almost back to our vehicles when a chachalaca flashed across one of the rare clear stretches of trail about forty yards ahead of us, only to slip back into the thicket in a second or less. The first bird was followed by a second. “Quick! Shoot!” yelled Perez, who hadn’t brought a shotgun. A third chachalaca darted across the trail before I finally fired at the fourth bird. When I lifted him from the ground, his body was warm and surprisingly plump. Several wine-dark berries from a coma tree, his final meal, spilled from his beak.
Now it was time to clean and cook my harvest. Shannon Tompkins, the dean of Texas outdoors writers, says chachalaca meat is delicious. Perez tends to disagree. After he shot his one and only chachalaca eight years ago, he simmered the meat with mushrooms, crushed tomato, and bobwhite quail breasts from a previous hunt. “I could tell the difference,” Perez said. “I bit into the chachalaca, and it was a little gamier. I was like, meh.”
For my first, and possibly last, tasting of chachalaca, I didn’t want to mask the flavor. Back home the next day, I lightly seasoned the breasts and leg quarters with nothing but salt and pepper. I slowly warmed them in a water bath to an internal temperature of 140 degrees, using the sous vide cooking method, which was probably a mistake; once I removed the meat from the bath, I seared it in a smoking-hot cast-iron pan with a couple of pats of butter and found that the breasts were flavorful if a little tough from overcooking. The flesh wasn’t as delicate as quail, nor as dark and rich as dove and duck. The drumsticks were a tasty mess of meat and toothpick-size bones, like miniature turkey legs. That left the thighs. They were a revelation, genuinely tender and satisfying. I offered one of the thighs to the other taste-tester in my household, who declared her nibble “pretty good.”
Part of me felt a little silly. I had purchased a shotgun, booked a hotel room, and spent nine hours in my car, to shoot a little bird that I promptly devoured while standing next to my kitchen stove. But I also had a story to tell: of a trek through deep and unspoiled chaparral, of South Texas light fading to dusk, and, finally, a chachalaca in the hand.