PHEASANTS OF PAKISTAN

 

 

Cheer Pheasant

 ( Catteus wallichi )  

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Local Name: Cheer

 

The cheer pheasant is a medium-sized montane pheasant in which sexual dimorphism is slight and in which both sexes have long, narrow occipital crests. A large red orbital skin area is present, and the plumage is generally grey to buffy, with black barring and spotting, and the highly graduated tail likewise is strongly barred with buff, black, and brown. The wing is rounded, with the tenth primary shorter than the first, and the sixth the longest. The tail is of 18 rectrices, with the central pair up to five times the length of the outermost pair. The tail moult is phasianine (centripetal). The tarsus is fairly long, and spurred in the male. A single species is recognized.

 

Measurements:

Delacour (1977) reported that males have wing lengths of 235-270 mm and tail lengths of 450-580 mm, while females have wing lengths of 225-245 mm and tail lengths of 320-470 mm. Males weigh from 3i Ib to 3| Ib (c. 1475-1700 g), and females from 2f Ib to 3 Ib (c. 1250-1360 g); (Ali and Ripley 1978). However, Baker (1928) reported the weight of males as 2 Ib 10 oz to 3 Ib 7 oz (rarely 4 Ib) and females from 2 to 2f Ib (c. 900-1250 g). The eggs average 53.4x49.3 mm, and have an estimated fresh weight I of 71.6 g.

 

Description: 

Adult male
Top of head and crest blackish-brown, edged paler and tipped with grey; upper nape the same but with the grey tips larger; line below bare orbital space and ear-coverts hair-brown, almost black near the bill; chin, throat and neck greyish-white, faintly centred with brown streaks and barred with black on the lower nape and hindneck; scapulars and lesser wing-coverts barred ashy-grey and black, narrowly fringed with grey and the subterminal black bar glossed with green; upper tail-coverts and tail pale buffy-grey, purer grey at the tip, barred broadly with mottled black and dark ashy-grey; outer tail feathers with chestnut replacing the grey on the inner webs; quills brown, the outermost primaries edged and barred with pale buff on the outer webs and mottled and burred on the inner web, mottlings increasing on the inner secondaries; these have a broad subterminal bar of black and a less well-defined second bar; greater and median wing-coverts more buff, sometimes almost rufous; below greyish-white, more or less tinged posteriorly with rufous buff; foreneck and breast with concealed bars which become very conspicuous on the lower breast and flanks,- the feathers of the breast also have faint brown stripes; centre of abdomen blackish, more or less mottled with buff-rufous; vent and under tail-coverts rufous; thigh-coverts dull rufous-buff. Iris golden-hazel to orange-brown; orbital skin crimson or crimson-scarlet; bill pale yellowish-brown, rarely pale brownish or bluish horny; legs plumbeous or greyish brown, sometimes fleshy-brown,- toes paler.

Female

Head like the male but with ochre edges to the feathers; hindneck and nape greyish-white with bold black centres; mantle pale chestnut, each feather cream-shafted, edged grey and with bold black bars; lower back and rump ashy brown mottled with black and a little buff; tail and upper tail-coverts with alternate bands of mottled rufous and black, and bolder bars of black and buff; longer tail-coverts with more black and less buff; primaries brown barred with buff on the outer and with chestnut on the inner webs; secondaries mottled black and chestnut-brown with four broad bars of creamy buff, edged above and below with black; greater and median coverts mottled black and chestnut-buff with broad tips of creamy buff; chin, throat, and f or-eneck creamy white; breast black, the feathers edged and streaked with white; remaining lower plumage pale chestnut, edged with creamy-buff; flanks anteriorly like the breast, posteriorly like the abdomen; under tail-coverts pale rufous, slightly mottled with brown; facial skin brick-red.

 

Identification

In the field (25-27 in.)
This species is associated with hilly, broken grassland country, and usually occurs in small flocks. The distinctively elongated and buffy brown tail, and the short, pointed crest are distinctive; the bar-tailed pheasant is the only remotely similar species that possibly overlaps the extreme eastern end of the

cheer pheasant's range. The birds have many vocalizations, including a very distinctive crowing, cher-a-per, cher-a-per, cher, cher, cheria, cheria. They also utter cackling sounds of repeated waaak notes and a sharp alarm note, tuk, tuk. . . . Wing-whirring is lacking in this species.

In the hand
The long (300-600 mm) and strongly barred tail, together with a straight and tapering brown crest that is directed posteriorly provides an easy combination of traits for in-hand identification. No other long-tailed pheasant is so uniformly buffy-brown in body and tail colouration.

 

General biology
Food and foraging behaviour
Beebe (1918-1922) noted that although in two out of 'a few' birds that he examined, he found an abundance of small leaves, finely ground up, in general he subscribed to the belief that most of their food comes from digging with their bills, during which they obtain grubs, terrestrial tubers, and the like. He did find the larvae of cockroaches as well as several wireworms in one crop, and observed birds chasing winged insects as well. Ali and Ripley (1978) suggested that their major foods are roots and tubers, seeds, and berries, with grain eaten when it is available, as well as various insects and grubs.
Foraging is typically done in pairs or sometimes in family groups. Like the Himalayan monal, a single bird or pair may dig a foot or more below the surface, until they are almost hidden from view, looking up every few seconds for possible danger (Beebe 1918-1922).
Movements or migrations
Almost certainly there are major changes in altitudinal distribution in this species, judging from its broad verical range, but the data of Gaston et al. (1981) are apparently insufficient to document this seasonal shift. Baker (1930) stated that in cold weather they may be seen as low as 4000 ft, and in summer at 10 000 ft or higher, but on average are to be found between 6000 and 9000 ft. Apparently the birds move around a good deal on their particular hills, but never completely abandon them, and year after year are likely to be found in much the same places.
Daily activities and sociality
These birds feed in mornings and evenings, and unless the day is very cloudy they remain under cover during the middle of the day. During the night they have been reported to roost on the ground by some observers, but probably more generally they tend to roost in stunted trees, high bushes, or on the summits of high rocks that typically abound in their favoured habitats (Baker 1930). Ali and Ripley (1978) reported that the birds typically roost in patches of oak forests associated with gullies, and as they approach these areas in the evening they are surprisingly noisy, seemingly rendering them vulnerable to poachers or predators.
Like the monogamous eared pheasants, these birds tend to be fairly gregarious, and where population densities permit they are likely to be found in flocks of from five to 15 birds, except during the actual breeding period. Much male calling goes on within these flocks, so it is apparent that it cannot serve as a territorial signal under such cases, and must have other social functions, which remain to be learned.

 

Social behaviour
Mating system and territoriality
All authorities are agreed that this species is entirely monogamous, although the length of the pair bond under natural conditions is unknown. Apparently both sexes often perform crowing behaviour both at daybreak and again at dusk, and the call is loud enough to be heard for at least a mile (Baker 1930).
Territory sizes are still unstudied, but Lelliott (198la) reported hearing four different individuals calling in mid-May, when most or all birds would be breeding, on an area of only 0.5 km2 (50 ha). Thus, their territories could average no larger than about 12 ha, assuming that these were four breeding males doing the calling.

Voice and display
The crowing call, uttered by both sexes, is a loud and rather complex call that has been variously rendered, such as chii-a-pir, chii-a-pir chii chii, chirwa, chiiwa. The call is uttered by the male with his head pointing directly upwards, in the manner of an eared pheasant, and begins with a series of harsh grating notes in rapid succession, which rise to a crescendo of very high pitched disyllabic whistles (Wayre 1969). Males in captivity often call in duet with eared pheasants, and the calls are sometimes difficult to distinguish, according to Wayre. He also stated that the males' visual display is a lateral one, that is somewhat similar to the posture assumed by true pheasants (Phasianus}, with the elongated tail being spread widely and tilted toward the female in a manner that also resembles that of Syrmaticus. Tid-bitting calls and behaviour are not yet described; nor is copulatory behaviour. Apparently the long occipital crest is never raised in the manner typical of the koklass, and the facial wattles are only moderately enlarged. They are also said to lack wing-whirring displays (Delacour 1977).
The absence of iridescent colouration in this species is of interest, and is perhaps related both to the reduction of sexual selection pressures associated with monogamy, and also with the relatively open and grassland-dominated substrate of this species, which seems to be admirably coloured for maximum visual concealment in such habitats.

 

Reproductive biology 
Breeding season and nesting
The breeding season apparently extends from late April to early June, with nesting in lower altitudes
often beginning near the end of April, and some birds as late as early June at the highest elevations. Clutch-sizes are relatively large, with 9 to 10 apparently being the usual size, but as many as 13 or 14 have sometimes been reported from nests in the wild.
The nests are typically located at the foot of a boulder on steep hillsides covered with open oak or pine forests, and usually well hidden in grasses, bushes or bracken in very broken ground. Some nests have been found at the foot of nearly vertical cliffs, and in relatively inaccessible sites (Baker 1930).
In captivity, the birds lay clutches of from 9 to 12 eggs, and from 15 to 25 eggs in a season (Delacour 1977). The incubation period is 26 days.
Incubation and brooding
All the incubation is performed by the female, although the male remains close at hand. After hatching, the male joins the family, and takes an equally strong role in protecting it from any disturbance as does the female.
Growth and development of the young
Baker (1930) cites a Mr A. Winbush, who encountered a family of newly hatched cheer pheasants. As the young scattered in all directions the two adults rushed toward him with their tails spread, their wings arched, and their neck feathers ruffled, the male bird approaching within 8 ft and continuing to threaten him until all the chicks were hidden in the grass. At that point both the adults began to walk away, calling to the chicks all the time. Probably such family groups remain intact through the winter and until the start of the next breeding season, and may be the basis for the usual covey size of five to 10 or 15 birds. Sexual maturity is attained the year following hatching.


Evolutionary history and relationships
Delacour (1977) believed that this species is fairly isolated, with varying degrees of similarity to Syr-maticus, Phasianus, Lophura, and Crossoptilon. The downy plumage pattern is quite distinctive and somewhat partridge-like, and the monomorphic adult plumage is also relatively unusual. In calls and posturing it has some distinct similarities to the eared pheasants, but otherwise seems much closer to Syrmaticus in most respects. I have no strong opinions about the relationships of Catreus, and, like Delacour, believe it to be fairly isolated from other genera.

 

Habitats, Population densities and Conservation Status
This species occurs over a rather wide altitudinal range in the western Himalayas, and is particularly associated with steep, grass-covered hillsides having scattered trees, especially where rocky crags are also present. Tall grasses, rather than heavily grazed grasslands, are also preferred, and in Himachal Pra-desh its altitudinal range is from about 1200 to 3000 m, or from the subtropical pine forests to the subal-pine meadow zones (Gaston et al. 1981). In one small wildlife sanctuary (Chail) of this general area a spring density of about six pairs per km2 was estimated in 1979 (Gaston and Singh 1980). A more recent survey of the same area in 1983 provided a density estimate of about seven pairs per km2 (Gar-son 1983).

In Pakistan this species is now apparently extirpated (Severinghaus, Mirza, and Asghar 1979), though it is protected by law in Pakistan. Its original habitat there evidently consisted of long grasses, thick bushes, precipitous slopes, and tiered cliffs, judging from early literature. It was formerly abundant throughout Siran and Kaghan Valleys in Hazara district, the Margala Hills and reportedly was also present in Swat and Kohistan districts.

At present however, the distribution of Cheer Pheasant is on the whole restricted to several small pockets in Kashmir and Western India. There are unconfirmed reports of Cheer Pheasant in the Kaghan Valley and in several locations in district Kohistan, but their current existence in Pakistan is doubtful. The ecological niche previously occupied by the Cheer Pheasant has been filled by the White Crested Kalij whose requirements are similar in many respects. At one point Kalij and Cheer would have competed for habitats, but with dwindling Cheer populations, Kalij were quick to take command of the habitat. With the present wild populations of Cheer Pheasant bordering on local extinction, the Kalij populations have flourished and intruded on the Cheer, further adding to the pressure on this endangered species. Wild populations of Cheer Pheasant in Pakistan are presumed to be locally extinct, their ecological niche hosting White Crested Kalij in the Margala Hills and in the North, Koklas Pheasants. 
 

 

In the 1990's several attempts were made by the World Pheasant Association and the Capital Development Authority to rear Cheer Pheasant in captivity so that they could later be released at selected sites throughout the National Park. The project attracted international attention, with remarkable cooperation from international captive breeders who worked together to produce Cheer eggs for shipment to Pakistan. Due to predation, rehabilitation problems and disease, the project failed to establish a viable wild population and to date no Cheer exist in the Margala Hills. Few birds were released in 1978, and 30 more were put out in 1979 in the vicinity of Dhok Jiwan, N.W.F.P (Mirza 1981a). 50–60 pairs of breeding captive birds  are very well kept at Dhodial in N.W.F.P (Squardon Leader Zulfiqar Ahmed)

 

  • Note: There is a research paper MEASURES TO ENHANCE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE CHEER RE-INTRODUCTION PROJECT, by Zulfiqar Ahmed. Please click here for more information

 

Credits:

 

  • Text: The Pheasants of the World : Biology and Natural History
    by Paul A. Johnsgard, Joseph Wolf (Illustrator)

  • Pheasants of Pakistan, by Owen Joiner (WWF-Pakistan)

  • International/Species Survival Commission and Pheasant Specialist Group, July 1996 No5

  • Photo: The Pheasants of the World : Biology and Natural History,  Joseph Wolf (Illustrator)

 

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