Western Horned Tragopan

 ( Tragopan melanocephalus )  



Local Name: ***


The tragopans or horned pheasants are medium-sized montane pheasants in which the sexes are highly dimorphic, the males tending toward crimson on the head and sometimes elsewhere, and with extensive white to buffy dorsal spotting. The wings are rounded, with the tenth primary the shortest, and the fifth and sixth the longest. The tail comprises 18 feathers, is rounded, and usually shorter than the wing. The tail moult is perdicine (centrifugal). The bill is short and stout, with the forehead feathers almost reaching the nostril. The tarsus is very stout, about as long as the middle toe and claw, and in males has a short spur. Males also have a short occipital crest, two erectile and brightly coloured fleshy horns that are erected during courtship, and a brilliantly coloured gular lappet or bib that can be expanded and exposed during display. The sides of the head and throat are naked or only thinly feathered and brightly coloured. Five species are recognized. In Pakistan only the Western Horned Tragopan is found.




Delacour (1977) reported that males have a wing of 255-290 mm and a tail of 220-250 mm, while females have a wing of 225-250 mm, and a tail of 190-200 mm. Males weigh 4 to 4| Ib (c. 1800-2150 g) and females 2| to 3 Ib (c. 1250-1400 g; Ali and Rip-ley 1978). The eggs average about 63 x 42 mm, and have an estimated fresh weight of 61.3 g.



Adult male
Crown black, with decumbent red-tipped occipital crest. Face naked bright red. Upperparts including wing-coverts and tertiaries finely vermiculated buffy grey and black, and with round black-bordered white spots or ocelli. Neck red. Tail mottled buff and black, with irregular black bars and tips. Naked throat deep blue; foreneck and upper breast bright light red. Rest of underparts black, ocellated with white and irregularly smeared with red; flanks and abdomen mottled with brown and black. Iris brown.

Bill black, tip horny. Bare skin of face bright red with lines of small blue spots below eyes. Throat skin deep blue; cheeks blue-green; lappet purplish blue down centre, pink on margins, with pale blue indentations. Fleshy horns blue. Legs pink to whitish grey, varying with season (Delacour 1977).


General effect grey instead of rufous-brown as in satyia. Above brownish grey; head and neck tinged with rufous, rest of upperparts irregularly streaked and spotted with black and white. Underparts vermiculated grey and dark brown, spotted with ful­vous on throat, and broadly streaked and splotched with white on the paler and greyer abdomen and flanks.



In the field (25-27 in.)
This species resembles a large but stout pheasant, and is usually seen singly, in pairs, or small coveys, in fairly dense montane vegetation. The white circular spotting on the greyish upperparts, especially the lower back and upper tail-coverts is distinctive, but the spotting is less regular in females than in males. Both sexes have reddish faces, and the legs are usually pinkish. During the breeding season the male can be identified by its distinctive call, uttered most often at dusk and daybreak at intervals of about five or ten minutes. It is a far-carrying waa note, resembling a goose calling or the bleating of a small goat. The only other tragopan possibly occurring within this species' range is the satyr.

In the hand
Males may be easily distinguished by their predominantly grey upperparts and reddish facial skin. Females are more brownish grey, both above and below, and their distinctly greyish cast with black vermiculations with separate them from all other species of the genus. The extensive white spotting helps to separate female tragopans from those of other pheasants, and the elongated white central spot on each feather is bordered with black.


General biology

Food and foraging behaviour
Beebe (1918-1922) found western tragopans to be foraging on newly sprouted leaves, and based on the accounts of various sportsmen believed that such vegetable matter forms their principal diet. He quoted an extensive account by a Mr Wilson who stated that the birds forage on the leaves of trees such as box and oak, and shrubs such as ringal bamboo and one something like a privet. They were also said to eat roots, flowers, insects and their grubs, acorns, seeds, and berries of various kinds, but in small amounts as compared with leaves. In captivity the birds seem to be typical of their genus, consuming primarily vegetable materials, with emphasis on fruit and berries (Howman 1979).
Movements or migrations
Gaston et al. (1981) suggested that this species is relatively sedentary in Himachal Pradesh, showing little vertical movement with the seasons. However, Ali and Ripley (1978) give the species' elevations as breeding above 2400 m (to 3600 m) and wintering at about 1350 m. Wilson (cited by Beebe 1918-1922) also states that in winter the birds are found in the thickest parts of the oak, chestnut, and morenda pine forests having a dense undergrowth of ringal bamboo. But, during the breeding season, they are to be found in the higher parts of the forest, up to the zone of birches and white rhododendrons, and almost up to the extreme limits of the forest.
Daily activities and sociality
Roosting by these birds is done in trees, preferentially low evergreens, where there are closely inter-woven leaves and branches, rather than in taller trees. The birds were once normally found in groups of from two or three to a dozen or so, which tended to be rather widely scattered over the forest. Such groups are apparently typical only where the birds are undisturbed; in such cases they tend to remain in ones and twos scattered over considerable distances. At least during the winter the birds seem to be quite sedentary, rarely moving far to forage, but during conditions of heavy snowfall they may sometimes be found on bare, exposed hillsides, in narrow wooded ravines, patches of low brushwood and jungle, and other places where the ground is sheltered from the sun by trees and bushes.
When several are alarmed simultaneously, they all begin to cry at once, and scatter in different directions, with some flying into trees while others flee on the ground. When first flushed they may simply alight in a nearby tree, but after a second flushing they often go some distance, almost invariably downhill (Wilson, cited in Beebe 1918-1922).
Like the other tragopans, the birds disperse in spring, with males establishing territorial calling perches that are well separated from one another. In early April the males are said to be moving a good deal, and they begin to call loudly, usually from a large stone or while perched on the thick branch of a tree, or the trunk of one that has fallen to the ground. During autumn the families gradually begin their descent to wintering areas.


Social behaviour

Mating system and territoriality
Ali and Ripley (1978) judged this species to be monogamous, with the male assisting in tending the chicks, even though the incubation was said to be done entirely by the female. This degree of monogamy seems as yet unproven, but it is also unlikely that the species is serially polygynous, as has been suggested by Ridley (in press). Given the relatively short advertisement and breeding season, it seems most likely that monogamy prevails.
Wilson (cited by Beebe 1918-1922) reports that the birds begin to pair in early April, when the males are found well scattered and calling at intervals, sometimes all day long. The calls can be heard for upwards of a mile, suggesting that relatively large territories are held by these birds. However, there are no available estimates of territory sizes.

Voice and display
Wilson (cited by Beebe 1918-1922) stated that the only calls of the species that he knew of were an alarm call consisting of a series of loud wailing cries sounding similar to the calls of a young lamb or kid, waa, waa, waa . . . , with each syllable uttered slowly and distinctly at first, but increasing as the bird is hard pressed or about to take flight. The male's advertisement call is similar but much louder, with only a single note uttered each time, and similar to the bleating of a lost goat. It may be uttered every five or ten minutes for hours on end, or may be produced only two or three times during an entire day.
Beebe (1918-1922) heard a few other vocalizations of the western tragopan including a call similar to a 'drowsy waaa-waaaaaaaak\' of a domestic hen, and a low chuckle uttered by a female approaching its nest.
The lappet colour and pattern may be easily seen from study skins (Fig. 11), but there is almost no detailed information on the species' actual display. Delacour (1977) implies that all species of tragopans have essentially the same display sequence, but this is evidently not true. Nonetheless the display may be quite similar to that of the satyr, its apparent nearest relative.


Reproductive biology 

Breeding season and nesting
There are few exact dates of nesting for this species, but one nest of six eggs was found on 25 May in Hazara province (now a district of Pakistan), and another nest of three eggs was found on the ground, and was carelessly constructed of grass, small sticks, and a few feathers. The second was on a slanting tree about 10 ft above ground, in a hollow where a large branch had been torn away. The tree was a wild cherry, and about 100 ft or so above a stream on a well-wooded slope. A third nest was found in the Nila Valley of Garwhal and was located under the protection of a small bush in an open glade that was situated in very dense ringal jungle on a steep and rocky hillside. Only fragments of eggs were present. Lastly, a clutch of two eggs was found during June in a tree nest (Baker 1935).
Besides these nests, Beebe (1918-1922) describes seeing a clutch of apparently three eggs collected 4 June in Pir Pangal, Kashmir, and he also observed a female on a still-uncompleted nest 40 ft up in a silver spruce tree in western Garwhal. This nest was evidently an old nest of a corvine bird, to which a lining of spruce twigs, oak leaves and some weeds had just been added.
Incubation and brooding
There is no good information on this aspect of breeding biology, for western tragopans have only very rarely been bred in captivity (Delacour 1977). Very probably its incubation behaviour and other aspects of the species' nesting biology are the same as those of other tragopans.
Growth and development of the young
Only a few people have successfully raised young of this species in captivity (Delacour 1977), and there does not seem to be any detailed information on this subject.


Evolutionary history and relationships

Although this species would certainly seem to be most closely related to the satyr tragopan on geographic grounds, and perhaps also on the basis of the plumage pattern of the male, there is more grey present on both sexes, perhaps as a reflection of the generally drier environment typical of the western tragopan as compared with the satyr. Generally, the satyr tragopan is largely limited to the watershed of the Ganges River, whilst the western is associated with the watershed of the Indus, although no major ecological or physiographic barrier separates the two at present.

Habitats, Population densities and Conservation Status

The Western Tragopan is found in the Western Himalayas, between about 8000 and 12 000 ft, from Hazara eastward to Garhwal, and has been reported from Ladakh. Islam (1983) has summarized the general habitat characteristics of the western tragopan as consisting of a summer range in forests of spruce (Picea smyth-iana], deodar cedar (Cedrus deodar a] and brown oak (Quercus semicarpifolia] at the upper edge of the tree-line, from 2500-3600 m elevation. During winter they are found in mid-altitudinal dense coniferous or mixed mountain forests with a northern aspect, and between 2000 and 2800 m. An undergrowth cover of rue (Ruta] and ringal bamboo (Arun-dinaria] provides dense cover in both summer and winter habitats in eastern parts of its range.

In Pakistan the birds occur in steep forested slopes in a transition zone between moist and dry temperate climatic zones, in dense forests. Islam observed them in predominately coniferous, predominately deciduous, and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, with the coniferous species consisting of fir (Abies pindrow], blue pine (Pinus wallichiana}, spruce, and yew (Taxus wallichiana}, the deciduous species being brown oak, cherry (Prunus padus], walnut (fuglans regia], horse chestnut (Aesculus indica], maple (Acer caesium], and birch (Betula utilis}. All forests where tragopans were observed were characterized by having thick undergrowths of Viburnum nervosum, with Skimmia laureola and bracken fern (Pteridium spp.) in some areas. Rue and ringal bamboo do not occur in Pakistan (Islam 1983).

The known present range of the western tragopan is but a remnant of the original one, which perhaps included some 10 000 km2 of forest habitat, and is essentially entirely restricted to a small area of Pakistan and Himachal Pradesh, northern India (Gaston, Islam, and Crawford 1983).

In Pakistan, the species is apparently largely restricted to the area between the Jhelum and Kun-har Rivers, of the Hazara district. There are no recent surveys in Swat to confirm its possible occurrence there but skins have been brought out of the area (Mirza 1981a). It may also occur in the Bichela and Bhunja forests of Kaghan Valley, Hazara district. However, the bulk of the population occurs in the Neelum and Jhelum valleys of Azad Kashmir. It apparently still occurs from Reshna to Bor, from Bugina to Phalakan along the ceasefire line, and from Kuttan to Machiara in the Neelum Valley. It has also been reported from Pir Chinase, Pir Hasi Mar, Leepa and Chinari in the Jhelum Valley, and may still occur locally in the Murree hills and Hunza (Islam 1983). Gaston et al. (1983) indicated the range in Pakistan as ranging beyond the Kunhar River into the Kanghan Valley, based on earlier surveys in Pakistan by Mirza, Aleem, and Asghar (1978), and west to the Jhelum River in the vicinity of Chinari. The recently established Machiara National Park in Azad kashmir supports a viable population of this Pheasant. The remote Palas valley in North West Frontier Province, Pakistan contains the largest single tract of western Himalayan Temperate Forest in Pakistan, and is of global importance for its biodiversity. This valley is believed to support the largest population of the Western Horned Tragopan in the world and is the focus of the BirdLife International Himalayan Jungle Project the mission of which is to safeguard the outstanding natural heritage of the Palas valley. Surveys of calling males in spring in the Palas Valley in Indus Kohistan suggest that there may be approximately one male per 25 acres (10 ha). BirdLife International funded a team of 8 people in the spring of 1994 to survey new areas of the Palas valley in the Kohistan District of Pakistan, not previously searched by Guy Duke and colleagues. They found some further pockets of good forest containing tragopans, and the new estimate for the total population of the Palas valley is about 325 pairs. Guy Duke (project co-ordinator) is hoping to secure three years funding for the Palas Conservation and Development Project (1995-98) as a successor to the Himalayan Jungle Project (1991-95) in this area. 

From 10th December 1995 to 8th March 1996 World Pheasant Association/BirdLife International/Species Survival Commission and Pheasant Specialist Group conducted surveys for western tragopan with the assistance of Pakistani counterparts in Bar and Kuz Palas, Indus Kohistan, North West Frontier Province. The surveys were made under the auspices of BirdLife International's Himalayan Jungle Project.

Study sites were selected on the basis that they supported tracts of potentially suitable forest habitat for tragopans, in conjunction with information gathered from the two shikaris (local hunters/guides) assisting the survey team and other local people. The methodology used to detect tragopans and other pheasants consisted of two to four observers walking through suitable habitat with a shikari using a trained dog to flush birds. This technique is considered the most effective and efficient means of locating these pheasants in winter in the difficult terrain that they inhabit. When pheasants were encountered the species were identified and sexed whenever possible. These observations were supplemented by additional evidence of occurrence including faeces and feathers.

The survey recorded 15 western tragopans, 13 in Bar Palas and two in Kuz Palas. The latter are the first confirmed records of the species in this part of Palas. All but two of the birds encountered in Bar Palas were on predominantly south-facing slopes with a low percentage snow cover. The environs of Karo Ser in Bar Palas were identified as an important wintering site for western tragopan. These woodlands are directly opposite the core breeding area for the species on the other side of the river.

Western tragopans were found mostly in evergreen oak Quercus baloot and Himalayan Cedar Cedrus deodara dominated woodland with a relatively dense shrubby understorey and numerous grass-filled nullahs. Birds were recorded from 1735m to 2400m. Most records came from slopes with a southern aspect, probably reflecting the greater amount of time spent surveying such localities. Slopes with northern aspects invariably had too much snow to survey.

Estimates suggest that some 900 birds exist in Pakistan and perhaps 5,000 in India, but numbers are declining. The world population of western tragopans must be less than 5000 individuals. More recently Gaston et al. (1983) estimated that only 2000-3000 km2 of habitat still remain that are suitable for the species, and that the world population is perhaps between 1600 and 4800 individuals. This would seem to be an objective assessment, but the actual number may be even
lower than that. Islam (1983) mentioned that the skin of a male is worth from 100-150 rupees (around $15, or £10), or much more than its value as meat. Grazing, logging, and gathering of branches for firewood all occur in the habitat of the western tragopan as well, and add to the disturbance it now receives, according to Islam. Gaston et al. (1983) suggested that three reserves should be established for the species, one each in the main habitat blocks still used by the birds. These include the Neelam Valley, the Inner Seraj area, and a site somewhere in the Ravi-Chenab area still to be determined. 


Of all Phasidae in Pakistan, the Western Tragopan (T.melanocephalus) is the most specialized in its ecological requirements. With such specific requirements it is little wonder that it is also Pakistan's rarest pheasant species and one which is severely endangered. This bird has rarely been brought into captivity and may never have been bred successfully. There is no captive breeding program in progress at the present time.




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

  • Pheasants of Pakistan, by Owen Joiner

  • Tragopan, Newsletter of World Pheasant Association/BirdLife 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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