Birds – Argus Pheasants

Although, according to classical mythology, Juno is said to have transferred the eyes of Argus, after his death, to the tail of her favorite bird, the Peacock, it is not difficult to see how the name of Argus came to be associated with this splendid Pheasant, close of kin to the Peacock, which bears the hundred eyes, not indeed on the tail, but on the great wings. And, it may be added, the traditional acuteness of vision is well maintained, for of all the Pheasants none is more secretive and keen to observe approaching danger. The genus Argusianus embraces three species, one of which, however, is only known from a portion of a single wing-feather, the others being Gray’s Argus (A. grayi) of Borneo, and the better-known Argus (A. argus), which range from Siam through the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra. Generically they are distinguished by the possession of a tail of twelve feathers, the middle pair in the male being enormously elongated and more than four times the length of the outer pair, while similarly the secondaries of the wing greatly exceed the outer quills; the sides of the face and throat are naked. The male Argus Pheasant attains a total length of seventy-two inches and the tail a maximum length of fifty inches, while the primary quills are about nineteen inches long and the secondaries thirty-four inches. The naked parts of the head are dark blue, the short crest is black, and the upper parts black beautifully mottled with buff, while the under parts are buff barred with black in front, and the remainder black with wavy bars of chestnut; the long middle tail-feathers are whitish with kidney-shaped black spots and blotches, and the primaries are beautifully ornamented and patterned with close-set rows of black and rufous spots, but the greatest beauty resides in the secondaries, which have the outer webs ornamented with a row of large eye-shaped spots, these gradually increasing in size toward the tips of the feathers.

The markings on the wings and tail are only seen to advantage as the male is displaying before the female, when the tail is held erect and the wings spread and thrown forward until they make a great circular fan or shield, behind which even the head is often concealed. Of the habits of the Argus Pheasant, Mr. Davidson writes entertainingly as follows: ” They live quite solitary, both males and females. Every male has his own drawing-room, of which he is excessively proud, and which he keeps scrupulously clean. They haunt exclusively the depths of the evergreen forests, and each male chooses some open level spot — sometimes down in a dark, gloomy ravine entirely surrounded and shut in by dense cane-brakes and rank vegetation; sometimes on the top of a hill where the jungle is comparatively open — from which he clears all the dead leaves and mud for a space of six or eight yards square, until nothing but the bare clean earth remains, and thereafter he keeps his place comparatively clean, removing carefully every dead leaf or twig that happens to fall on it from the trees above. These cleared spots are undoubtedly used as dancing grounds, and the males are always to be found at home, roosting at night on some tree close by. They are the most difficult birds I know of to approach.” The female is a plain bird of mottled and barred black and buff without the eye-spots on the wings, and but thirty inches of total length. Like the male, she lives quite solitary, but has no cleared space, and wanders about the forest apparently without any fixed residence. But little appears to be known regarding their nesting habits.

Gray’s Argus is smaller and has the mantle and wing-coverts black mottled with white and rufous, while Rheinardt’s Argus Pheasant (Rheinardius ocellatus), separated as a distinct genus on the ground that the secondary quills are not longer than the primaries, has the tail in the male even more elongate, being sixty inches out of a total length of eighty-four inches; it is a native of the mountains in the interior of Tonkin, but is very rare, at least in collections, and little is known of its habits.