Ask an ornithologist to compare a hawk and a chukar. The list of similarities will be short. Both have feathers, wings, and a beak—but even these attributes look and function quite differently between the two species. Basically, what is left is the fact that the hawk and chukar are both birds—at least throughout most of the world. Ornithologists often overlook a rare exception in the Pacific Northwest. Here, in the state of Idaho, hawks and chukars spend each summer playing Minor League Baseball.
Long before the Boise Hawks and Idaho Falls Chukars began their summertime nesting, however, Idaho had many minor league teams. In fact, professional baseball first came to the Gem State over a century ago when the Boise Fruit Pickers made their 1904 debut in the Class B Pacific National League—then folded with the league the same year. This short lifespan reflects the instability of professional baseball’s early years. Leagues and teams rarely lasted more than a season or two, mostly due to economic troubles and a general lack of structure.
This trend continued for Boise teams in 1909 when the Irrigators played only one season, with half their home games in Bozeman, Montana. As a side note, while irrigation canals were crucial to cultivating the arid Pacific Northwest land, it is interesting that Boise adopted the Irrigators nickname and not Idaho Falls. After all, it was the eastern Idahoan metropolis that boasted the world’s largest irrigation canal, the Great Feeder, in 1895.
In 1912, a reincarnated Irrigators squad started play and managed to outlast its predecessor, but not by much. The team died with the Class D Union Association after the 1914 season, and so did Boise baseball for the next thirteen years.
During this hiatus in the state capital, Idaho professional baseball spread eastward through Magic Valley and to the Montana border. In 1926, the Class C Utah-Idaho League kicked off its inaugural season with six franchises, three from each state. With no team in Boise, Idaho played host to the Twins Falls Bruins, the Pocatello Bannocks, and the Idaho Falls Spuds. The Logan Collegians moved north from Utah in 1928, and the Boise Senators played in the League’s final season.
While the Utah-Idaho League lasted just three seasons, its existence opened the door for the Gem State’s smaller cities to have pro ball clubs. By 1940, all four cities once again had minor league teams, this time in the Class C Pioneer League. The Twins Falls Cowboys (later known as the Magic Valley Cowboys) had debuted in 1939. So did Pocatello, this time in the form of a Saint Louis Cardinals farm team – Idaho’s first major league affiliation. These cities (even Caldwell and Lewiston later on) touted Pioneer League baseball well into the twentieth century, but ultimately lost their teams to contraction and relocation.
Just one year after the December 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor, Idaho’s baseball revival experienced a setback—but only temporarily. Even though FDR gave Major League Baseball commissioner Judge Landis the “green light” to continue baseball throughout the Second World War, the Pioneer League suspended play from the 1943 season though V-J Day. In 1946, the League restarted with all four Idaho clubs intact. From this point, Boise and Idaho Falls took very different paths to the 2008 season.
The Boise Pilots returned to Airway Park and remained there for seventeen seasons, playing as an independent organization as well as a New York Yankees and Milwaukee Braves farm team. At the time, the Pioneer League also supported minor league affiliates to teams in the Pacific Coast League—i.e. the Hollywood Stars. Today, the Pacific Coast League is a Triple-A circuit, but during the mid-1900s it made a serious bid to join the American and National Leagues as a third “major league.”
When the National League expanded westward to California, the Pacific Coast League plan failed and the Pioneer League sunk into hard times. Meanwhile, with major league contests on television, baseball fans lost the incentive to leave the comfort of their homes to watch a ball game. Low attendance forced Pioneer League officials to cut four of the eight franchises. In 1963, Boise fell victim to contraction and lost professional baseball for more than a decade.
In 1975, Boise baseball returned, this time in the Class A Northwest League. The new team relocated from nearby Lewiston and lasted two years before being cut by the league. The capital welcomed an expansion team in 1978, the Buckskins, but that team moved to Medford at the end of the season.
When Northwest League baseball returned to Boise in 1987, the new team shifted its image from hunting to conservation. Just outside city limits lies the World Center for Birds of Prey, a breeding center and sanctuary for all species of carnivorous birds, known as raptors. While the complex has helped facilitate spectacular comebacks of endangered species, notably the Peregrine Falcon and California condor, Boise baseball decided to align itself with a more common bird —a Hawk.
There are many types of hawks prevalent throughout the world, but in the United States, the term “hawk” can also be used to describe most small and midsized birds of prey. This group covers a broad range of species, from falcons to caracaras to ospreys—almost any raptor excluding owls. An expert assassin, hawks use superior vision and sharp talons to kill small birds and mammals. Using short rounded wings and a long tail, hawks glide in circles high above the treetops, scoping the landscape for their next meal.
In 1989, the Hawks moved into their new nest in Memorial Stadium as the only unaffiliated club in the Northwest League. One season later, Boise had joined the California Angels farm system; a season after that, the Hawks brought home their first Northwest League pennant. After missing the playoffs in 1992, the team won three-straight championships. Since realigning with the Chicago Cubs in 2001, Boise has added two more titles. To honor the tradition of success, the six championship pennants fly above Memorial Stadium in a flag pavilion behind the right field wall.
As the 2006 Hawks ballplayers were winning their way to another championship appearance, executives debated how to revamp the team’s image. For twenty seasons, Boise had sported a Cooperstown look—simple navy and blue colors with a classic “B” logo. Even the nickname lacked the certain quirky distinction that popularizes many minor league teams. (Look no further than the opposite side of the state.) So management consulted the community and received some interesting recommendations—none more so than the Whistle Pigs.
More commonly known as a woodchuck, the whistle pig earned its bizarre nickname thanks to a simple hunting strategy. “If you whistle these things will pop up and you shoot them,” says team president, Todd Rahr. “It’s a dumb animal that guys go hunt in the deserts on the flatbeds of their trucks with a six-pack of beer. The mentality is get drunk, go out, and blow a bunch of shotgun shells at these animals.”
Needless to say, the Whistle Pigs nickname “didn’t really feel like family entertainment,” so the team continued its search. Another popular proposal was the Hotshots, paying homage to the crews of firefighters who combat the most dangerous forest fires. Management even considered identifying with a specific bird, like Peregrine Falcon or Red-Tailed Hawk. But at the end of the day, no other names seemed to work.
“I don’t think you need to lengthen the name of your team to add marketing flair to it. Hawks had been a solid name for over twenty years.,” says Rahr. “What it came down to was there was so much history with that name and so much support locally. The market didn’t want to change.”
With the nickname retained, management turned its attention to designing a distinct logo. For guidance, Rahr looked no further than his favorite team: the Seattle Mariners. “When you see that compass, you know who you were talking about without the name or even an ‘S’ or ‘M.’ The compass stands for something.”
By November, the Hawks had two striking new logos. Stitched onto the on-field caps is the majestic primary logo: a golden and red hawk soaring high on a green cap, clutching a baseball bat in its talons. On the batting practice hats is the cutting edge alternate logo: a hawk talon digging into a baseball. While the logos look very different, management achieved what it wanted—iconic logos for a generic nickname.
To create Boise’s new identity, artists used an attractive and appropriate palette of colors. Initially considering teal or turquoise, the logo designers picked forest green as the team’s primary color, a perfect choice considering Boise is the City of Trees. The three complementary colors also bear local significance: the shade of red matches the brick buildings making up downtown Boise, orange represents sunshine, and the white-yellow “corn silk” recognizes Idaho’s agricultural background.
Most fans rushed to buy the new caps and apparel for the 2007 season, but one Hawk took the team’s color change to an extreme. After molting throughout hibernation, Humphrey the Hawk returned to Memorial Stadium on opening day with striking new brick red plumage. Since hatching in the Boise foothills more than twenty years ago, Boise’s biggest raptor has also been Boise’s biggest baseball fan. Sporting yellow sunglasses, a sideways hat, and a forest green jersey with the #0, Humphrey roams the stands, trying to rally his favorite team.
Meanwhile, as the Hawks work on capturing their seventh championship, Idaho Falls looks to capture its first league pennant, not in franchise history, but with the Chukars nickname.
For over sixty years, Idaho Falls has stood out as an institution of consistency in the ever-changing Pioneer League. Since its revival in 1946, the Pioneer League has seen franchises in more than twenty cities and endured five contractions. Of the League’s eight teams today, only Idaho Falls can trace its roots back to that first post-bellum season. More impressive yet, the franchise never relocated in its sixty-three-year history, a rarity in Minor League Baseball.
It all started with the Russets, the Idaho Falls team moniker through fifteen seasons and five affiliations. In 1961, after realigning with New York, the team dropped its potato theme and became the Yankees. Two seasons later, as Boise dealt with contraction, Idaho Falls survived as a new affiliate for a recent Major League expansion team, the Los Angeles Angels.
Over the next four decades, the east Idaho city changed affiliations three more times, almost always adopting the parent team’s nickname: Angels, Athletics, Braves, and Padres. The only exceptions came in 1985 and 1992, when the team experimented with Nuggets and Gems, respectively.
In 2004, Idaho Falls joined the Kansas City Royals system as a Rookie level farm team—and finally decided to establish a new identity with local flavor. “In this day and age, your affiliate can change every three or four years, and you are going to lose a lot of money when you have to completely change your business identity,” says Assistant General Manager, Andrew Daugherty.
The team considered community suggestions, but management ultimately settled on an idea by one of its own. After calling Idaho Falls baseball games for more than twenty years, radio announcer John Balginy called out his team’s new nickname for the first time: the Chukars.
“Nobody really wanted the Idaho Falls Royals, so the ball team had a contest going and had gotten thirty or forty entries,” remembers Balginy. “One day, I was driving around town and I saw Kevin Greene, our general manager, jogging. He jumped in my car and he said ‘What are we going to do with this nickname? We need something catchy like the Toledo Mud Hens.’ So I said, ‘How about the Idaho Falls Chukars?’”
Most fans can relate to Greene’s initial reaction: “What the heck is a chukar?” One answer is that the word “chukar” is a baseball pun; pitchers are sometimes referred to as “chuckers.” But that does not really answer the question.
What exactly is a chukar? Standing about fifteen inches high, weighing in at just over one pound, Alectoris chukar is also known as a red-legged partridge. Scurrying around in low grass, the grey-bellied, brown-backed bird feeds on insects, berries, leaves, and primarily cheat grass. What the chukar lacks in flashy feathers it makes up for in distinctive plumage patterns. In addition to zebra-striped wings, two black eyes look out from a black band, or gorget, surrounding a white face and red beak.
Interestingly, while the chukar now thrives in great numbers throughout the western United States and Canada, the bird is actually a native to Eurasia. Spread across countries from Greece to China, the bird has particular significance to countries in the Indian subcontinent. Mythology in India claims the chukar is in love with the moon, always staring skyward toward it. In Pakistan, the bird holds a special status as the national bird.
Four centuries and one year after Christopher Columbus first came to the Americas, a chukar traversed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. In 1893, a man named W.O. Blaisdell brought ten birds to Macomb, Illinois from India. It was not until the 1930s that thousands of imported chukars had established a home in the Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho regions of the Great Basin – a rocky desert region spattered with steep mountain ranges and valleys.
When Idaho Falls first ushered in professional baseball, virtually no one in the Pacific Northwest had ever heard of a chukar. Now, thanks to Jim Balginy, a nation of baseball fans can identify the small red-legged bird. “In the chukar world, they’re probably thanking us for making them more popular,” quips Daugherty. And, in Idaho Falls, no chukar is more recognizable than the team’s mascot, Charlie.
Standing taller than most humans, Charlie the Chukar is a local fan favorite. To cover his gray piñata-like plumage, Charlie sports a pinstriped Chukars uniform, maroon shorts, and the team hat—black crown, maroon visor, with the logo of a chukar chucking a baseball.
From his first day on the job, Charlie established the Chukars ballpark as his permanent home. That arrangement worked out especially well for the team mascot in 2006 when management resolved to give Charlie’s home a complete renovation. Lacking the money to construct a completely new facility alongside the greenbelt, the organization demolished the old McDermott Field, then constructed Melaleuca Field around the original baseball diamond. Complete with luxury suites, picnic areas, and a scenic view behind the outfield wall, Melaleuca easily earned Best Renovated Ballpark honors.
Being in different leagues, Idaho Falls has virtually no interaction with the team in Boise. Nevertheless, the Chukars and Hawks have represented Idaho well. Between title pennants and classy new logos, the Gem State’s Minor League Baseball clubs have garnered national attention and praise.