October 18, 2013 | 31
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.