The ‘king of birds’ dresses the part when pursuing a mate

Though rarely seen in the wild, the western tragopan’s flashy features and elaborate dance moves catch the eyes of potential mates.

By Patricia Edmonds
photographs by Munmun Dhalaria
Published 6 Sept 2019, 12:52 BST
Te colourful – and threatened – western tragopan.
Te colourful – and threatened – western tragopan.
This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The western tragopan is a scarce, shy, and elusive bird. Males are as beautiful to behold as they are rare to spot. Locals call the species jujurana, king of birds. Perhaps 3,300 survive in the wild, in India’s Himachal Pradesh state.

That’s where filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria spent most of 2017 and 2018, making a documentary on the jujurana. One day as she hid in a bird blind, a male drew near, splendid in his orange-feather ascot and white-spotted black cloak. After browsing for food, he hopped onto a boulder and began calling, aiming to woo females and warn off rivals. Dhalaria, a National Geographic explorer, watched and filmed the bird for 35 minutes, one of the longest documented jujurana sightings in the wild.

Witnessing a mating call is one thing—an actual mating, quite another. It’s sometimes glimpsed at the world’s only captive-breeding program for this pheasant cousin, in Himachal Pradesh. The male sidles up to the female. He deploys his finery: His head sprouts blue horns, his tail feathers fan, his rainbow wattle unfurls. At passion’s peak, he ducks out of view, bursts forth again, rushes the female, mounts—and they mate for 10 seconds. Though brief, it’s effective. During the next six to eight weeks, she’ll lay three to five eggs and hatch them. Captive-bred birds form a reserve as wild populations shrink. The program has about three dozen birds and aims to release some into the wild in 2020.

See why this colourful ‘king of birds’ is at the centre of conservation efforts
The western tragopan (or jujurana, which means “king of birds”) is one of the most vulnerable pheasants in the world; just 3,300 survive in the wild today. This species can be found only in the western Himalaya and is most protected in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India. National Geographic grantee Munmun Dhalaria created a short film that features her sighting of the bird, one of the longest jujurana sightings ever to be documented in the wild. Dhalaria’s film also highlights the bird’s courtship display in captivity and the state’s overall conservation effort to protect the king of birds.

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