I first read about these birds in Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World, a book about the Yangtze River. He mentioned Temminck’s tragopan, and since I’m always immensely curious about any type of animal I’ve never heard of, I immediately googled it and knew I had to blog about tragopans. First of all, these birds are called tragopans, which is hilarious. Secondly, they are all very beautiful.

A lovely drawing of the five species of tragopan. Image by Henrik Grönvold, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are five species in the genus Tragopan, which is in the pheasant family. All five species are found in Asia, with some enjoying Himalayan hospitality and others ranging across China. Though the type of forests preferred vary between tragopan species, all five do require some kind of vegetative cover in which to live.

I said that all tragopans are beautiful birds, but that’s not entirely true. All male tragopans are beautiful. The heads of male tragopans are adorned with bright colours, ranging from blue to red to yellow. Male tragopans also possess horn-like projections that are raised during the breeding season, and a lappet that extends from the throat and can be inflated during mating displays.

Tragopans are mostly herbivorous, feeding on plant roots, shoots, flowers, fruits and seeds. They will also eat various insects, and sometimes even small vertebrates. Tragopans come to the ground to forage, but roost in trees at night.

Male tragopans use their bright colours to attract female companionship. Tragopan displays involve calling, bouncing, hopping around, hiding behind rocks and surprising females, as well as bowing and scraping the ground with their wings. If the male is successful, the two birds will mate. Females lay between two and six eggs, which hatch after about a month. The chicks look like female tragopans, only developing full male colours after two years.

A male Temminck’s tragopan. Image by Doug Janson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The name tragopan, while chuckle worthy, does actually have a (somewhat) reasonable origin. The word tragos means goat, and Pan is a Greek god who is half goat. The name refers to the goat-like appearance of tragopans when they have their horns erect.

Unfortunately most species of tragopan are endangered or threatened, thanks to habitat fragmentation and hunting. The western tragopan is the rarest pheasant in the world, with only 5,000 birds left in the world (including captive birds). Hopefully we can protect these guys before they actually go extinct.

Cover Image by Estulif, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit