Is this genus of pheasants the most spectacular of all? BILL NAYLOR introduces these five magnificent species and offers expert advice on how to keep and breed them
Although there are many beautiful pheasants, the tragopans are generally accepted as being the birds of paradise of the pheasant family. They are much sought after by private pheasant keepers, zoos, and – unfortunately – poachers.
All five species have been kept in captivity, but the western (Tragopan melanocephalus), Cabot’s (T. caboti) and Blyth’s tragopan (T. blythii) are now rare in aviculture, with declining wild populations. Temminck’s (T. temmincki) and the satyr tragopan (T. satyra) are the two species most frequently seen in captivity and are the only tragopans not listed on CITES. Overall, Temminck’s is the species seen most often in aviculture.
The care of all tragopans is similar and they require large aviaries. Unlike other pheasants, they are strong flyers and can nest in trees about 12m (40ft) high. When kept in small pens without foliage, they are prone to obesity and are usually short-lived. If provided with foliage and spacious aviaries, they can live for up to 20 years. Clipped tragopans have been successfully kept in high fenced open pens, but be aware – even clipped birds can climb large shrubs and trees.
Tragopans are extremely hardy, being found in dense montane forest, typically at an altitude of around 3,660m (12,000ft). In captivity, they do better in temperate climates, because they suffer in short periods of heat more than cold. They enjoy sunshine, but also require substantial shade. Pheasants hate wet soil and prefer to be kept on coarse sand, which should be regularly raked over.
In the wild, they are shy and more often heard than seen. In aviculture, they are gentle and confiding birds, which often become attached to their keepers.
They feed on berries, insects and a variety of plants. Avoid cabbage because tragopans gorge themselves, which can lead to death. Feeding pheasant pellets and grain in moderation helps them avoid putting on weight. Limestone and quality grit will assist their digestion.
The name tragopan comes from the Greek word tragos for goat. This refers to the goat-like mating call of the male, often compared to the bleating of a stranded goat. They are also called horned pheasants, in reference to the horn-like feathers on the sides of their head, that are most prominent when the males perform their impressive displays.
When mating, males circle the hen and suddenly rush forward, shaking their heads repeatedly, and rapidly flutter their wings till they make a whirring sound. Temminck’s tragopans inflate their bright blue neck wattles or lappet, which trebles in size, revealing vivid scarlet bars. Though the display lasts only seconds, it is one of the most impressive in the bird world.
Tragopans adult plumage is acquired in the second year, but young males reveal their sex in the first year. Being larger than the hens, the males have more black and red around the head and neck area.
The females of all tragopan species are shades of brown, with subtle differences in plumage and colour of the orbital skin. The similarity has led to satyr tragopan hens being mated with male Temminck’s, but some breeders disapprove of such cross-breeding, intentional or otherwise.
While pheasants usually scratch a dip in the soil ready to lay their eggs, tragopans build their own nest and use a platform or large tray. The nest is usually in a tree or large shrub, but they will also nest on the ground.
The female incubates the eggs for 28 days, with the young flying two days after hatching. Although tragopans are excellent mothers, the eggs are often hatched in an incubator or fostered under chickens. Parent-reared chicks usually want to roost outside preferably up a tree, which can be disastrous. They require careful monitoring.
Don’t count your tragopans until they’re fully developed. They grow slowly and need to be kept warm when they are small. Chick crumbs are excellent rearing food, and they will take insects and a little greenfood.
Captive breeding is now the only solution to building up captive populations of tragopans and preventing extinction of the rarer species. Notable success has been achieved in this area by gamebird expert Francy Hermans in Belgium, who has bred many of the four out of the five species of tragopans, using natural means and artificial insemination.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture, working in zoos, bird gardens and museums in the UK and overseas.