A Feast of Feathers

This stunning and colourful array of species, from peafowl to pheasants, are often hunted for our consumption. But take a moment to appreciate their diversity and beauty.

By Brian Handwerk
Published 25 Nov 2022, 11:12 GMT
NationalGeographic_2758699
A male Soemmerring’s copper pheasant, Syrmaticus soemmerringii soemmerringii, from a private collection.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, Natitonal Geographic, Photo Ark

Game birds include some of the most familiar fowl, such as turkeys, partridges, and chickens—ground-dwelling species that have long been domesticated for their meat and eggs.

But many members of the order Galliformes are anything but ordinary farmyard birds. Gloriously coloured peahens, vibrant pheasants, fancy-feathered quail, and many other species are visual standouts in any forest or field. In many cases, male game birds compete for females by showing off their bright hues, fleshy wattles, knobby head combs, and more. Finding mates is such serious business that such adornments usually serve no other practical purpose, like the male Indian peacock’s striking eyespots.

Many of these spectacular birds, found on every continent except Antarctica, are hunted for meat while their home territories are fractured and shrinking due to human development. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, more than 25 percent of the approximately 290 Galliformes species are classified as at risk of extinction.

“The bottom line is that each bird species is a true work of art, honed over eons, and yet so many are endangered now,” says photographer Joel Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, which illuminates the world’s biodiversity to inspire conservation action.

“I still don’t understand it. We stand guard over paintings in art galleries 24 hours a day, but we’re allowing these living works of art to slip away?” he says by email. “That’s not acceptable, and it’s why I’m doing the Photo Ark."

This Indochinese green peafowl (pictured above at the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity in Cambodia) and its close relatives were once widespread across Southeast Asia, but are now classified as endangered by the IUCN, largely due to habitat loss. (Read why birds matter—and are worth protecting.) “Hopefully people will see how beautiful and intelligent every single one is,” says Sartore. “Each and every one of these animals can inspire change if only we stop, pay attention, and act.”
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
This yellow-knobbed curassow resides at the Houston Zoo, while its wild relatives live in the forests and plains of Venezuela and Colombia. Males are easily spotted by their fleshy yellow cere, a fleshy covering at the base of their bill. But it’s their distinctive vocalization that really stands out—the same descending whistle that cartoons use to accompany a falling bomb. Though the call doesn’t end with an explosion sound, the birds often complete it by clapping their wings.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
This pair of crested wood partridges live at the Sylvan Heights Bird Park in North Carolina, a facility that breeds rare birds for conservation. Once common across much of Southeast Asia, these partridges aren’t globally threatened, but they’ve become far more scarce due to extensive logging of their forest habitat in areas such as peninsular Malaysia. (Learn if partridges actually live in pear trees.)
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
The Bornean peacock-pheasant (pictured, an animal at a private collection in England) is endangered, with only small populations hanging on in Borneo due to widespread deforestation. It’s difficult for scientists to estimate the population of these shy and elusive birds, but it is believed that fewer than 2,500 individuals remain. “It’s so important to showcase all that I can to get the public to see what’s out there, right now, while there’s still time to save species,” Sartore says. “We won’t save what we’ve never even met.”
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
While all guineafowls have mostly bare faces, the vulturine guineafowl’s long, naked neck and distinctive bill resemble those of vultures, as seen above at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska. Recent research suggests that these guineafowl not only live in stable social groups, but that the groups interact with one another, hinting at the type of socially complex society typically found only among big-brained animals. (Learn how animals experience emotions just like us.)
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
The Congo peacock (photographed at the Houston Zoo) is rarely seen in the wild; perhaps only 10,000 birds still inhabit the rainforests of the Congo River Basin. Though the Democratic Republic of the Congo has protected its national bird since 1938, poaching and habitat loss continue to drive steep population declines. The IUCN lists the species as vulnerable to extinction. Captive-breeding programs have so far had limited success, raising concerns for Africa’s only pheasant species.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
Genetic studies have confirmed that the world’s domestic chickens are chiefly descended from a subspecies of red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) that was domesticated in northern Southeast Asia or southern China about 9,500 years ago. Above, a male red jungle fowl poses as the Assam State Zoo cum Botanical Garden in India. (Read how keeping chickens has become more popular during the pandemic.) These birds, which are not threatened by extinction, still range from India to Indonesia, and some of their feral chicken relatives have even returned to the wild in various corners of the world—including Hawaii.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, Natitonal Geographic, Photo Ark
The male Germain’s peacock pheasant (pictured at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas) is decorated with ocelli, the eyespots more famously found on peacocks. The gaudy plumage has proven so successful at attracting mates that is has evolved several times in various Galliformes species. Like most game birds, this species prefers to strut its stuff on the ground. “If you’ve ever flushed a pheasant or a quail, it just explodes up, and then it only goes about a hundred yards. All these birds are made for walking,” says Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York. This species is considered near-threatened because of logging operations and hunting with both gun and snare.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
Helmeted guineafowl, which include nine subspecies, such as Reichenow’s helmeted guineafowl (seen above at the Sylvan Heights Bird Park) are common sights across sub-Saharan Africa and the island nation of Madagascar. Named for the bony casque atop their heads, helmeted guineafowl use their long legs to walk and run miles each day in search of food and water. People domesticated helmeted guineafowl some 2,000 years ago, and the birds remain in high demand for their meat and eggs.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
The tufted helmeted guineafowl is a popular attraction at the Tsimbazaza Zoo in Madagascar. The birds make a racket, and because they’re easily provoked, the farmyard flocks frequently double as guard birds.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
The lesser Bornean crested fireback (seen at the Houston Zoo) lives in Borneo’s lowland forests, where they face extensive habitat destruction. Though classified as vulnerable to extinction, the radiant pheasants have shown some encouraging adaptability by surviving in logged forests and, in some places, living near people. To stake a claim to territory or attract mates, the male birds engage in dramatic wing-whirring displays accompanied by a squirrel-like call.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
This Lady Amherst’s pheasant lives at Pheasant Heaven, a private sanctuary in North Carolina dedicated to caring for and breeding many of the world’s rarest pheasants. These brilliant birds live primarily in Myanmar (Burma) and southeastern China. Named for British botanist and naturalist Sarah Amherst, the birds were introduced to the wilds of Britain but are now extinct there.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark
Two domestic chicken breeds, silkies and Buff Orpingtons (with the orange feathers), stare down the camera in Lincoln, Nebraska. With more than 33 billion birds around the globe, chickens are one species that’s certainly not threatened—they now outnumber humans at least 4 to 1.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic, Photo Ark

National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore photographed these Galliformes as part of the National Geographic Photo Ark. Learn more at natgeophotoark.org
 

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