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The Cheer pheasant

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The gamebird clade – properly called Galliformes – includes an enormous number of obscure and weird species that you rarely hear much about, nor see in zoological collections (unless you’re an obsessive who’s made a point of tracking them down). Among the weird is the fascinating and odd Cheer pheasant, Chir pheasant or Wallich’s pheasant Catreus wallichii of the western Himalayas.

Captive Cheer pheasant. Photo by Darren Naish, CC BY.

The only member of its genus, the Cheer pheasant is large (males can be 118 cm long in total) with a long and broad, barred tail, red facial skin, a prominent crest and proportionally short legs. Overall, the plumage is greyish and it’s sometimes described as nondescript. Males are somewhat bigger and longer-tailed than females but, overall, members of both sexes are highly similar, a fact consistent with the monogamous breeding system practised by this species.

Wild Cheer pheasants. Photo by Kousik Nandy, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Cheer pheasants have proved more widespread across the Himalayan region than was originally thought but they appear vulnerable, with a population broken up into fragments. The presence of the species in Pakistan and Nepal is doubtful and it might be extinct in those areas now (Madge & McGowan 2002). This is a high-altitude specialist, occurring above 1800 m and breeding at steep cliff-like places.

Comparatively little is known of its behaviour. Partly this is because it is a skulking bird, typically only active in the early morning and late afternoon, that spends much of its day sitting concealed. It will in fact sit tight until almost trodden on, meaning that people can even catch Cheer pheasants by hand. Disturbed birds may run rapidly upslope when threatened, being extremely reluctant to take wing. When flushed, however, it is reported to rapidly ‘rocket’ downhill, displaying a remarkably rapid, noisy, agile flight that might involve near-closed wings and rapid twisting between trees. Individuals have been seen in family groups and in parties of up to 15. It forages in open grassy habitats for plants and invertebrates, frequently digging for roots and tubers and sometimes excavating pits so large that foraging individuals may be almost hidden from view (Madge & McGowan 2002). This excavating is done with the stout, decurved bill.

John Gould's illustration of another weird gamebird, the Koklass pheasant. Different forms of Koklass occur from Afghanistan all the way east to eastern China. Image in public domain.

If you’re interested in gamebirds, the western Himalayas is one of the best places in the world. There’s an account from 1923 where Cheer pheasant were seen feeding in close association with Koklass pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha, Kalij pheasant Lophura leucomelena and Western tragopan Tragopan melanocephalus. Animals that predate on Cheer pheasants include foxes, martens, leopard-cats, hawk-eagles and, most remarkably (to me), Large-billed crows Corvus macrorhynchos.

What sort of gamebird is Catreus? The conventional assumption has been that it’s a pheasant, its long, barred tail hinting at an affinity with northern pheasants (Phasianus) and long-tailed pheasants (Syrmaticus). However, its spiky crest recalls that of the also strange Koklass, and both Catreus and Pucrasia are somewhat similar to the monals (Lophophorus).

The possibility that the pheasant-like appearance of Catreus might reflect convergence or the retention of ancestral, ‘pheasant-like’ traits was raised by Dyke et al.’s (2003) analysis of skeletal characters, since – in some trees – they found Catreus to be part of a clade that included tragopans, spurfowl, francolins, quails, partridges and New World quails. A few other weird pheasant-like taxa (namely the Koklass and the Blood pheasant Ithaginus cruentus) were in this clade too. If this is true, Catreus would be a morphologically primitive member of the quail lineage, not a pheasant. A topology of this sort would also suggest that all the quail and partridge-like gamebirds evolved from large, pheasant-like ancestors, a radical and exciting idea given that ornithologists have otherwise considered the small, short-tailed quails and partridges to be outside the clade that includes pheasants.

However…

Section of Ksepka's (2009) gamebird phylogeny. Here, Catreus is a phasianine, close to gallopheasants, ruffed pheasants and kin.

A lot of phylogenetic work has been done on galliforms since then (the evolution of pheasants and pheasant-like taxa is an area of major interest), and later molecular studies found Catreus to be a true pheasant close to the eared pheasants (Crossoptilon) (Kimball & Braun 2008), or to the ruffed pheasants (Chrysolophus) and gallopheasants (Lophura) (Bonilla et al. 2010). Ksepka’s (2009) combined morphological and molecular analysis recovered a similar position.

Well, that’s one weird gamebird done. There are lots of others. For previous Tet Zoo articles on galliforms, see…

Coming soon: a crapload of book reviews, Flight of the Microraptor, the Dougal Dixon interview, and much more.

Refs – -

Bonilla, A. J., Braun, E. L. & Kimball, R. T. 2010. Comparative molecular evolution and phylogenetic utility of 3’-UTRs and introns in Galliforms [sic]. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56, 536-542.

Dyke, G. J., Gulas, B. E. & Crowe, T. M. 2003. Suprageneric relationships of galliform birds (Aves, Galliformes): a cladistic analysis of morphological characters. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 137, 227-244.

Kimball, R. T. & Braun, E. L. 2008. A multigene phylogeny of Galliformes supports a single origin of erectile ability in non-feathered facial traits. Journal of Avian Biology 39, 438-445.

Ksepka, D. T. 2009. Broken gears in the avian molecular clock: new phylogenetic analyses support stem galliform status for Gallinuloides wyomingensis and rallid affinities for Amitabha urbsinterdictensis. Cladistics 25, 173-197.

Madge, S. & McGowan, P. 2002. Pheasants, Partridges & Grouse, Including Buttonquails, Sandgrouse and Allies. Christopher Helm, London.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. vdinets 11:48 pm 10/18/2013

    The biogeography of this group has always fascinated me. For example, why so many Asian species are long-tailed, but not a single African or American one (not even the Congo peafowl) has a really long tail?

    Link to this
  2. 2. BrianL 5:51 am 10/19/2013

    Surely it shouldn’t be that surprising that features associated with sexual selection such as crests, tails, wattles and so on appear and disappear at almost random within phasianid phylogeny?
    That being said, *Perdix* close to typical pheasants and turkeys, francolins close to *Gallus* and quail near *Pavo* are quite extraordinary.
    A minor question: What were New World quail doing deeply nested among phasianids in that Dyke et al. tree? Surely that alone should have been a sign of incorrectness.

    Link to this
  3. 3. naishd 7:05 am 10/19/2013

    vdinets: as covered on Tet Zoo before (see the peafowl articles), note that Pavo previously occurred in Africa.

    Re: odontophorids being deeply nested in a ‘phasianid’ clade in one of the Dyke et al. trees… Two things. (1) I guess they were prepared to consider novel topologies. (2) Different data sets produce different signals. The signal you get from some parts of skeletal anatomy might be very different from the one you get from plumage, mtDNA or whatever.

    As for “Surely it shouldn’t be that surprising that features associated with sexual selection such as crests, tails, wattles and so on appear and disappear at almost random within phasianid phylogeny?” (BrianL, comment # 2)… it does totally seem that this is the case. In fact, Hone & Naish (2013) looked at phasianids for this very reason, noting that “ornamentation could be considered ‘relatively random’, albeit with members of specific lineages representing variations on a theme”.

    Ref – -

    Hone, D. W. E. & Naish, D. 2013. The ‘species recognition hypothesis’ does not explain the presence and evolution of exaggerated structures in non-avialan dinosaurs. Journal of Zoology 290, 172-180.

    Link to this
  4. 4. vdinets 7:48 am 10/19/2013

    Darren: yes, Pavo was present in Africa, but it’s extinct there now (and we don’t know if it had long tail). Since long tail is a handicap, does its current presence only in Asian species indicate that selective pressure in Asia was not as severe as elsewhere?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Heinrich Mallison 8:01 am 10/19/2013

    I get to see a lot of weird pheasants and consorts in the Tierpark Berlin – amazing diversity! Need to blog about them one day; your article is a great help as I wouldn’t even know where to begin a search for extant bird phylogeny papers.

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  6. 6. BrianL 12:25 pm 10/19/2013

    @Heinrich Mallison: I advise you to look up the Taxonomy in Flux website. As far as I know, it is very up to date, generally reliable and very informative regarding the phylogeny and taxonomy of modern birds. I certainly learned a lot there.

    @vdinets: Are you suggesting that long tails themselves are the reason why long-tailed phasianids are all but absent from Africa? That seems a bit out there to me. You mention selective pressure. Are you referring to predation or sexual selection here as to why those longtailed species can not be found in Africa? If the latter, note that those phasianids that do exist in Africa belong to groups that are also short tailed outside of Africa. (I count *Gallus* as short tailed too.) *Afropavo* is the only exception to that rule but with the tail length of only so few pavonines being known, it seems difficult to tell if that carries phylogenetic signal. I’d even argue that it doesn’t as Argus pheasants actually have actual long tails and *Pavo*’s long feathers aren’t those of its tail. This would suggest that their resemblance is a case of convenienct convergence and misleading. It also makes it is impossible to tell if *Afropavo* is secondarily ‘short tailed’ or primarily. That’s even while disregarding the plasticity of secondary sexual characteristics in phasianids.

    Personally, I’d guess long tailed phasianids are absent from Africa because they simply didn’t invade there due to other reasons than their tails. Surely, *Pavo* used to be present, was likely ‘long trained’ and went extinct but that could be because of any reason. Also note that quail are remarkably good dispersers and colonisers. They weren’t the only phasianids to naturally reach Australia, New Zealand or Madagascar for no reason. Africa may be a comparable case. Phylogeny would suggest that *Gallus*’ ancestors actually came from Africa and so the closely related francolins tell us nothing about whether longtailed phasianids are ‘doomed’ to extinction in Africa either. That leaves *Xenoperdix*, which, if I’m not mistaken, is part of a short tailed Asian clade anyway.

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  7. 7. BrianL 12:39 pm 10/19/2013

    Oops, I made a mistake. Argus pheasants do have elongated train feathers, like *Pavo* does.

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  8. 8. Zoovolunteer 2:43 pm 10/19/2013

    I went to a lecture once by an aviculturist who kept Cheer pheasants and he said that as soon as he heard their alarm calls he could tell whether they had sighted an aerial threat like a buzzard or a terrestrial one like a house cat or fox. Different alarm calls for different predators were once reported as indications of intelligence (in vervet monkeys as I recall), but it seems to me that they are probably pretty universal in any animals that produce them.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Jerzy v. 3.0. 2:51 pm 10/19/2013

    One of those animals which are common in captivity but very difficult to see in the wild.

    I have personal, rather sad memory associated with Cheer Pheasant. I was in India in the area where Cheer Pheasants are sometimes seen coming to roost on the hillside above a village. Alas, we learned it only the last night before leaving.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 2:53 pm 10/19/2013

    Most of the pheasant diversity in Asia is in the mountain forests. Perhaps not so much mountains in Africa?

    Link to this
  11. 11. David Marjanović 7:39 pm 10/19/2013

    I had no idea.

    Large-billed crows Corvus macrorhynchos

    Wow. Is it documented that they weren’t just scavenging?

    Link to this
  12. 12. josimo70 8:30 pm 10/19/2013

    Why Gallininae instead of Gallinae? Typo?

    Link to this
  13. 13. vdinets 11:36 pm 10/19/2013

    BrianL: no, what I am suggesting is that long tails and trains didn’t evolve or survive outside Eurasia, and even in Eurasia they are mostly limited to Oriental region. Note that long tails/trains evolved independently in many lineages, and that widespread grouse, American turkeys etc. have long-tailed sister groups. I count Gallus as long-tailed.

    Jerzy: a lot of francolin diversity in Africa is in mountain forests.

    Link to this
  14. 14. BrianL 4:57 am 10/20/2013

    @vdinets: This might be getting into the subjective field, but I would disagree with your long tailed/short tailed descriptions. To me, most of the larger grouse and turkeys would count as long tailed whereas *Gallus* is short tailed: Just look at the females. Male *Gallus* merely have prominently curved decorative feathers and not a long tail, if you ask me (various domestics notwithstanding).

    Still, what’s your point? Are you simply pointing out the absence of long tails outside of Eurasia? If so, I might have misunderstood you because I got the impression that you thought there must have been a reason why such species did not evolve or survive outside Eurasia instead of you merely making an observation.

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  15. 15. vdinets 7:15 am 10/20/2013

    BrianL: OK, let’s say “long decorative feathers in or above tail” instead of “long tails”. They are present in lots of Asian species, including two species of grouse, both peacocks, all four junglefowl, and four pheasant lineages, but not in a single species outside Eurasia, despite the fact that many non-Eurasian species (both turkeys, sage grouse, blue grouse, spruce grouse, African peacock) use tails in displays. I think the sample size is too large to consider it random: there must be some reason.

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  16. 16. Dartian 7:50 am 10/20/2013

    Darren:
    remarkably (to me), Large-billed crows Corvus macrorhynchos”

    That’s indeed remarkable – if the crows prey on adult, healthy pheasants. Is that the case?

    Vlad:
    The biogeography of this group has always fascinated me. For example, why so many Asian species are long-tailed, but not a single African or American one (not even the Congo peafowl) has a really long tail?

    Interesting that you say that now. When I brought up the subject of the paucity of pheasants or pheasant-like galliforms outside of Asia (specifically, in Africa) last January, you didn’t give the impression that you found the topic particularly fascinating. Basically, your argument in that discussion seemed to boil down to “There are lots of francolin species in Africa, so there is really nothing that needs explaining”. Glad to see that you’ve finally come around on this subject though. ;)

    Since long tail is a handicap, does its current presence only in Asian species indicate that selective pressure in Asia was not as severe as elsewhere?

    Just to play devil’s advocate for a while: as the whydah birds show, exaggerated, ‘handicap’-length tails can demonstrably also evolve and prevail in African environments.

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  17. 17. vdinets 3:17 pm 10/20/2013

    Dartian: I don’t see any contradiction. Habitats occupied by Phasianids in Africa include pretty much all existing habitat types, just like in Eurasia. But in Africa nobody has long decorative feathers, while in Eurasia they are present in birds inhabiting boreal forests (black grouse), subalpine meadows (Caucasian grouse), gallery forests and reedbeds (common pheasant), savannas (peafowl), lowland rainforests (argus) and pretty much everything in between.

    Yes, some African birds have long tails, but clearly whydas have different selective pressures compared to peafowl :-)

    Link to this
  18. 18. Dartian 2:00 am 10/21/2013

    Darren (OP):
    “Catreus wallicchii”

    I only now noticed: There’s an extra ‘c’ there. It should be Catreus wallichii.

    Vlad:
    I don’t see any contradiction. Habitats occupied by Phasianids in Africa include pretty much all existing habitat types, just like in Eurasia.

    The point I was making back in January, and the point that you seem to be making now, is that a particular morphological type of galliform is effectively absent from (at least present-day) Africa. Namely, species that are large-bodied (> ca. 1 kg), lek-breeding, and possess an ornamental, conspicuous plumage (at least the males). In that earlier thread, you tried to dismiss that observation by suggesting that Africa lacks suitable pheasant habitat (in particular, mountains). Yet now you are admitting that pheasants are found in very variable habitats across Eurasia – which argues against the idea that Africa lacks suitable pheasant habitat. So yes, whether you realise it or not you are contradicting yourself.

    in Eurasia they are present in birds inhabiting boreal forests (black grouse), subalpine meadows (Caucasian grouse), gallery forests and reedbeds (common pheasant), savannas (peafowl), lowland rainforests (argus) and pretty much everything in between [...] some African birds have long tails, but clearly whydas have different selective pressures compared to peafowl

    I don’t quite follow your argument: You think that the selective pressures operating on a long-tailed African bird (e.g., a whydah) are fundamentally different from those operating on a long-tailed Asian bird, thus a priori invalidating any comparisons – but at the same time, you don’t think it’s necessary to take into account the possibility that significantly different selective pressures may be operating, respectively, on a black grouse in Norway and on an argus pheasant in Sumatra?

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  19. 19. naishd 3:58 am 10/21/2013

    Catreus wallicchii vs Catreus wallichii… yikes, how dumb of me. Now corrected, thanks.

    Darren

    Link to this
  20. 20. David Marjanović 6:42 am 10/21/2013

    I only now noticed: There’s an extra ‘c’ there. It should be Catreus wallichii.

    I was wondering :-]

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  21. 21. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:47 am 10/21/2013

    Perhaps long tail in pheasants is an ornament allowing squeezing through dense thickets. And perhaps living in hilly terrain gives pheasants advantage of escaping by gliding downhill. These things go often in common, because steep slopes make it difficult for trees to establish themselves.

    So few large, long-tailed birds in Africa because of more open habitats (large herbivore pressure) and fewer highlands.

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  22. 22. Dartian 8:46 am 10/21/2013

    Jerzy:
    Perhaps long tail in pheasants is an ornament allowing squeezing through dense thickets. And perhaps living in hilly terrain gives pheasants advantage of escaping by gliding downhill.

    If the long tail has actual adaptive survival value, why don’t females have it too?

    And the idea that long tails are associated with hilly/mountainous terrain is hard to reconcile with the fact that the most extremely long-tailed phasianids, Pavo, Argusianus, and Rheinardia, don’t live in such habitats.

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  23. 23. Halbred 6:27 pm 10/21/2013

    Interesting that these pheasants are so reluctant to take wing. Our (Alaskan) spruce grouse and ptarmigan are similarly ground-loving. I’ve been followed by an aggressive male ptarmigan for several miles during the autumn. I was wearing red pants, and he believed I was a rival male (or something). If I let him, he would sit on my shoe and pull at my laces or peck at my pants. Then I’d gently “kick” him off, and he’d come right back at me.

    The point is that he did all this on foot. Other encounters with these birds suggests that they’d rather be run over than fly away. They’re also not particularly fearful of humans. If you approach a group of them, they’ll rather slowly wander about ten feet away and then sit back down. They’ll really only fly if you suddenly run at them. Even then, they’re pitiful fliers.

    Funny birds, though. They’re always fun to watch.

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  24. 24. Dartian 12:24 am 10/22/2013

    Halbred:
    The point is that he did all this on foot.

    I was once ‘attacked’ by a male capercaillie (I put attacked in scare quotes because, in my case, it stopped just short of making physical contact). The bird was making threat displays towards me so I decided to retreat tactfully and let it ‘win’. The capercaillie started following me – first on foot, but every time that I started to outpace it, it took to its wings and flew after me, landed behind me and continued following me on foot. This was repeated three times. It was very persistent.

    They’re also not particularly fearful of humans.

    True dat.

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  25. 25. Dartian 12:49 am 10/22/2013

    in my case, it stopped just short of making physical contact

    And just for the record, capercaillies don’t always stop there. Here is just one example; there are lots more YouTube videos of male capercaillies attacking people. These birds be crazy!

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  26. 26. BrianL 4:22 am 10/22/2013

    That must be something about grouse then. Personally, my experience with wild phasianids is limited to ring-necked pheasants, Eurasian partridges and semi-feral peafowl but all of those are wary birds that certainly don’t like you to come close. That being said, one of the biggest scares I ever had in my life was when I walked in a park in the dark and a male peacock suddenly, unexpectedly and loudly took wing from the bushes right in front of me. That guy seemed enormous for a second!

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  27. 27. vdinets 8:18 am 10/22/2013

    Dartian: My point is better than yours :-) Large-bodied Phasianids are not limited to Eurasia: there are large francolins, turkeys, sage grouse, blue grouse, and African peacock. Leks are not limited to Eurasia: there are, again, turkeys, sage grouse, prairie-chicken, etc. Even displays using decorated tail feathers are not limited to Eurasia. But very long ornamental feathers are purely Eurasian. There seems to be some factor that allows Eurasian birds to have them, but doesn’t allow that to birds outside Eurasia. And whatever this factor is, it affects only Phasianids, because, as you noted, other birds have no problem evolving long tails on other continents.

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  28. 28. Dartian 2:46 pm 10/22/2013

    Vlad:
    My point is better than yours

    Hah! In your dreams! ;)

    Large-bodied Phasianids are not limited to Eurasia: there are large francolins, turkeys, sage grouse, blue grouse, and African peacock. Leks are not limited to Eurasia: there are, again, turkeys, sage grouse, prairie-chicken, etc. Even displays using decorated tail feathers are not limited to Eurasia.

    Well, yes, but my point was that the combination of a large-body, lek-breeding, and spectacular ornamental plumage isn’t found among African galliforms today (the Congo peafowl comes closest, but then again it’s obviously a relatively recent immigrant from Asia).

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  29. 29. vdinets 8:03 pm 10/22/2013

    Dartian: I don’t think it’s obvious, considering that Pavo fossils are known from Africa, but Afropavo fossils are not known from Asia.

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  30. 30. Dartian 1:51 am 10/23/2013

    I don’t think it’s obvious, considering that Pavo fossils are known from Africa, but Afropavo fossils are not known from Asia.

    Apart from Afropavo and that Pliocene African Pavo, the ‘peafowl’ clade is AFAWK exclusively Eurasian. It requires quite a lot of special pleading to argue that this group originated in Africa.

    Link to this
  31. 31. vdinets 2:33 pm 10/25/2013

    Dartian: I am not arguing anything here, just pointing out that either scenario is possible. The peafowl+arguses clade could be originally Asian, but the peafowl part of it African.

    Link to this

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