By Edgar Castillo
First, let’s get the snickering and lewd comments out of the way. No, snowcock is not some Icelandic adult film title. It is an extremely elusive game bird imported to North America that now resides in the high reaches of the Nevada Ruby Mountains.
Tetraogallus himalayensis, or Himalayan snowcock, is a sizable, grayish-mottled bird standing two-feet tall and weighing six pounds. This large species of grouse is native to the Himalayan region of the Pakistani mountains. Its introduction was the result of a new program started in 1948 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) aptly named, Foreign Game Investigations Program. Its objective was to seek out “new adaptable species possessing a high hunting resistance…that could…provide greater hunting opportunities.” Many states collaborated on joint ventures with USFWS, even getting federal money through the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act.
Nevada, seeing a possible solution to finding a game bird to enrich 60,000 square miles of desert habitat devoid of any sporting life, went into cahoots with the government. The snowcock, or snow partridge was at the top of their list. In 1961, a Reno trophy hunter was hired. His job: to coordinate the trapping of six snowcocks outside the town of Gilgit, Pakistan. Using human porters, a pony, a jeep, and an airplane, the birds traveled to Honolulu for quarantine. Only one bird survived the trip. The Nevada Game Commission were so impressed with the sole survivor they ordered 35 more. Of these, 19 weathered the trek to Nevada. In April of 1963, the birds were released directly into the Ruby Mountains where they vanished into thin air.
To make sure the snowcock would endure, the Nevada Department of Wildlife decided to establish a captive flock. Its purpose was to maintain a sizable population. 107 additional snowcocks were imported. Between 1963 and 1979, over 2000 were released in Nevada. 1,717 of them in the Ruby Mountain range.
In 1970 the Foreign Game Investigation Program was closed amidst policy changes. Thereafter, no exotic species of game birds would be allowed to be introduced in the U.S.
60 years later, Nevada has positioned itself as the only state to lay claim to having a true trophy game bird that rivals high country big game standards. Snowcocks are the mountain sheep of bird hunting. The birds live in inhospitable terrain that’s tough, dangerous, and just damn difficult. That level of sport is expected though, considering these birds originated in the jagged Pakistani and Afghan mountains.
Get in shape. If you think you’re gonna throw on a bird vest, and walk with a shotgun, you’re gravely mistaken. Think mountain pack and trekking poles. Once you get above the treeline around 11,000 feet then you’re getting warm. From here, glassing with binos or scopes can commence. Keep in mind snowcocks have been seen at 18,000 ft. Hours may pass scanning rocky cliffs until you see movement. These birds are masters of camouflage and easily morph into the landscape. They also suffer from paranoia which may cause them to take flight and glide down the mountainside or across to another peak.
While you’re straining your eyes…listen for a shrill piping call. If you’re confident in your vision and hearing, then start your stalk. Glass periodically. Traverse until you can pinpoint their location without spooking them. Dogs? Maybe. But Fido may fall to his death retrieving a downed bird if you miraculously shoot one.
Sounds challenging yet? Well, if you decide to risk your life then all you need is a Nevada small game hunting license and a free snowcock permit used to track harvest numbers. The season runs from September 1st to November 30th. Be aware that October can bring snow. The daily limit is two, but the success rate is extremely low. In terms of numbers, the 2020 season saw 201 permits issued and 10 birds killed, and 13 taken in 2019. Past reports have ranged between 2 and 23 snowcocks annually shot, with an average of 8 birds since 1980.
I know a handful of guys who have hunted snowcock, and they say it’s no joke. If you’re fortunate to hoist a snowcock into the mountain air, you’ve accomplished a great feat and the struggle will be well worth it.