Saturday, 8 September 2012

Galliformes 3: Satyr Tragopan

Male Satyr Tragopan
In the forests of the Himalaya across to as far east as the mountains of Vietnam can be found five species of large pheasant in the genus Tragopan. These distinctive birds usually live in deciduous forest with an understorey of rhododendron and bamboo, at fairly high altitudes – well over 4,200m, although they may descend to lower altitudes in the winter. At Bristol we have one of the more richly coloured of the group, the Satyr Tragopan or Horned Pheasant, Tragopan satyra.

In the wild Tragopans of all species are hard to study, as apart from their high altitude lifestyle they also prefer deep gorges and gulley’s with dense cover – not a habitat it is easy to do work in. The best way to survey population numbers is to listen for the males’ distinctive call during the breeding season rather than trying to see the birds directly. This however runs the risk of overestimating numbers, as single males will call throughout the breeding season whether or not they attract a mate. It appears from some studies that the male (at least in Cabot’s Tragopan T.caboti) will guard the female during the nest building an early incubation phase, then abandon her once the clutch is complete and try to attract another female. Once a female has been attracted by the call of the male he goes into an elaborate ‘peek a boo’ display from behind a treestump, showing off his blue wattles and horns to impress a potential mate. For a video of the display, see this YouTube video here:
In captivity at least it appears that the pair bond can be quite strong.
Female Temminck's Tragopan
In the wild, Tragopan’s may make their nest on the ground but more often in the branches of low growing trees or bushes. In either case, the nest site is well concealed by vegetation and the female sits very tightly to keep her eggs warm and dry in their cold, wet forests. In Satyr Tragopan, and probably the other species as well, a clutch is up to 4 eggs, but a female can lay several clutches a season in captivity. Incubation in Temminck’s Tragopan is 28 days, and is presumably the same for the other species as well.

The diet in the wild is heavy on plant parts and seasonal berries, but they will take some animal protein in the form of insects and snails as well. In captivity pheasant pellets, grain, and added chopped fruits is a basic diet. Unlike some other pheasant species they are not diggers, instead sampling growing plants as they patrol their territories. Although they can fly, like most pheasants they prefer to run away from threats, relying on the dense vegetation of their habitat for protection. Most of their natural enemies are probably mammalian predators like mustelids, foxes, and the like as birds of prey would have trouble locating them.

Unfortunately, deforestation and hunting are major threats to Tragopans, especially those with restricted ranges. Of the five species, only the widely distributed Temminck’s Tragopan is classed as Least Concern by the IUCN, and the Satyr is classed as Near Threatened with a wild population of under 20,000 adults in the wild. The others are all classed Vulnerable, with the rarest, the Western Tragopan Tragopan melanocephalus, probably closer to Endangered, with a wild population of 3-5,000 adults in total. There are well established captive populations of Temminck’s and Satyr Tragopan, but a captive breeding programme for Western Tragopan has had only limited success so far and the other two species – Blyth’s and Cabot’s Tragopans – have no current breeding programmes in place. One major concern is that female Tragopan’s are very similar between species, and care must be taken to avoid any hybridisation.

That brings to an end the galliform birds we currently have at Bristol. However, in the UK many more species live in the wild, both as natural occurrences and released for hunting, and next week I will start with the most famous, but possibly misunderstood, of them all, the Common or Ringed Pheasant Phasianus colchicus. How it came to be such a familiar farmland bird, and what it is like in its true wild state across its enormous range, is a study in a whole set of complex relationships between nations, classes, and a multiplicity of subspecies.

(images from wikipedia)

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