Archive for the ‘Galliformes’ Category

Painting by Dean Wolstenholme the Elder:

This dog is a good example of a purpose-bred mongrel retriever that lies at the base of every one of these breeds we call “retrievers” today.

It could have had anything in its ancestry. Collie or collie-type, St. John’s water dog, setter, some sort of water spaniel could all be in there. Even terrier or greyhound are possibilities.

This dog reminds me of  Portuguese water dog with the “improper coat” or possibly a wetterhoun with a lighter build. Both of those dogs would fit this animal’s description. My guess is the dog got this tail from some English water spaniel strain that happened to have it– for it may be that the curled tail might be a distinguishing trait of the old water dog landrace.

This dog should not be called a flat-coated retriever, a wavy-coated retriever, a curly-coated retriever, or a Labrador. Those dogs, as we came to eventually know them, were established from the time period from the 1850’s to about 1900. Modern Labradors really don’t start to develop in their current form until the 1880’s, which is about the same time that the wavy-coat began its transformation into the modern flat-coat.

This dog is none of those things. It is an early purpose-bred mongrel retriever.


The pheasant the dog is retrieving is also of interest. It does not have the exact same coloration as a Caucasus-type common pheasant, which was of the type that was originally introduced to the British Isle.

Let me make some things clear. The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is a widespread species of pheasant that originally ranged from Georgia to China and as far south as Pakistan and Vietnam.  In the Caucasus type, the cockbirds have no ring on their necks. In the East Asian subspecies, the cockbirds have this ring– and are called ring-necked Pheasant. The cocks in Central and South Asian subspecies have white wings, and those in the Mongolian subspecies have both white wings and a white ring around their necks.

I think it is a white-winged type of common pheasant– either a purebred or one that has been mixed with more common “native” English stock.

Bianchi's pheasant is type of white-winged common pheasant that is native to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 The type of white-winged common pheasant found in Afghanistan or Pakistan is called Bianchi’s pheasant, and these would have worked their way into England via trade with the East India Company.

This particular bird would have been just what a shooting nobleman would want to have on his estate. “Look at this exotic thing from India! We’re shooting it! Aren’t we cool?”

It would have been a symbol of personal and national prestige– especially when one realizes its from relative early date. This was during the days in which the East India Company ran India (including what are now Bangladesh and Pakistan). The British Crown had not officially claimed India, as it would eventually do in 1858– following the Indian Mutiny.  India was actually run  by private corporation with  private armies (Blackwater wasn’t the first to come up with this idea.) If this is a Bianchi’s or mongrel Bianchi’s, this painting would have been an early flaunting of British prestige in India.

I guess we’ll never know the full identity of the pheasant. We’d be much more likely to find out about the dog’s identity than that of the bird.

So both animals in this painting have rather interesting aspects.

An early purpose-bred mongrel retriever fetching a Bianchi’s pheasant. Amazing!

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With game birds, habitat is key. Without proper habitat, you’ll not have game birds. You can stock them, but without proper cover, they will fall to predation. And without proper access to cultivated fields and open pasture, the birds won’t make it long.

My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a land very different from the dense woodlands that cover most of West Virginia today. The land was used for intensive agricultural enterprises. The land was at best marginal to large scale crop production, but because they relied so much on what they could grow, they had to work as much of the land as possible.

When Europeans first came to this part of West Virginia, they cut small clearings in the forest and then shot all the wolves, cougars, and bears. They relied on wild game and domestic hogs for meat. They later took up small scale grazing of sheep and cattle. When the timber companies came in the decades following the Civil War, the forests were almost entirely cleared

Then market hunters killed off most of the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, and everyone came to rely on domesticated animals for meat. Hog-raising and cattle husbandry became skills that were passed on from generation to generation.

As a result of having so much open land where corn and other grains could be grown, the northern bobwhites were the most common game bird.

Now, bobwhites do need some cover. They have to have it to hide from predators, and because they roost on the ground, they need some dense bushes to cover them up.

However, they do tend to thrive where there are fields of grain and pasture land. These areas are even better for them if there are some areas at the edges of the cultivated land with some of those dense thickets.

The way pastures and agricultural land was maintained in those days was to leave some “waste” at the edge of the field. The really super-powerful mowing machines were unknown in those days, and most crops and hay were cut using scythes. It would be too much effort to cut the waste at the edge of the field, so these areas were left intact for the bobwhites.

Also, because the land was open, the hawks didn’t have many perches from which to launch their attacks.  Except for the harrier, most hawks can’t hover in the air and then drop down on their prey.

By the 1970’s, though, things changed. Scientific management of forests had finally begun to pay off in West Virginia.  Agriculture became much more profitable and efficient in other areas of the country, so people were less interested in farming the high ridges. It was cheaper to buy food at the grocery store. Also, the post-war industrial boom had provided new incentives for people leave the hills and give up on hill-farming forever. As a result of these changes, the land was becoming more and more forested.

The bobwhites lost their food source, and it also became easier for the hawks to hunt them. The hawks now had far more platforms from which to swoop down on the bobwhites.

After losing much of their food souce and having lost their ability to avoid predation, bobwhite numbers began to decrease.

Then in the late 70’s, harsh winters did them in. They simply could not put up with that much snow and such low temperatures.

By the time I was born, the bobwhite had disappeared from most of West Virginia. And it hasn’t returned since.

Quail Forever’s 2008 hunting forecast for West Virginia painted a bleak picture:

With approximately three-quarters of the state in forested land, marginal habitat and limited agricultural production, bobwhite opportunities in the Mountain State remain limited. The best quail habitat lies in the Greenbrier River Valley, the eastern panhandle and in isolated pockets along the Ohio River Valley. West Virginia hunters can again expect to see a harvest of less than 1,000 bobs.

I don’t live in any of those places. And when they say “Ohio Valley,”  they mean the lower part of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia, where the land is largely flat and still open. Indeed, there are lots of large farms for corn and tobacco down there. Where I live,  you aren’t going to see anything like that.

So I live in a bobwhite-free zone. However, we have plenty of other animals. We have a growing population of wild turkeys, a sizeable population of ruffed grouse, and very good woodcock numbers. These animals didn’t do so well when the land was open and full of cornfield and pastures. And partly because the forests have returned, we now have a growing black bear population. And I don’t have to mention that we have tons of deer.

It’s not unusual to hear old-timers wax romantic about those long days in the hayfields, where they spend hour after hour swinging a scythe through the tall grass. As the sweat would pour from their brows, they would hear the little feeding calls of the bobwhites as they scurried around the fields, catching little insects and nibbling on tiny grass seeds.

But those days are past. The ubiquitous nature of the bobwhite in those days was an unnatural occurence.  Like the farmers, the little game birds relied upon an unnaturally open landscape to make their living, and once people found they no longer had farm in order to eat, the land returned to the dense forests. And these forests were no homes for the bobwhites.

Because I grew up in a land of dense forests, I was more likely to see a black bear than a bobwhite. I think I can handle the trade.

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turkey hen and poults

This spring has been rainy and cool. That’s a good thing for many plants, which cannot put up with scorching heat of the summer.

However, it is very bad thing for wild turkeys.

I live in the heart of Eastern wild turkey’s range. They are big game birds, more than capable of long flights. I often see them flying across the river, landing on the other side as like black kettles falling from the sky. During high summer, I see hens moving in groups of two or three as they are trailed by a dozen or so little poults. This scene, however, may not be a reality this year.

The hen turkeys lay their eggs by mid-April. She sits on the nest for 28 days. Her poults then hatch, and they are highly susceptible to hypothermia. If they become cold, they die.

And that’s why a cool, rainy spring won’t be very good for these poults.

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These birds aren’t that closely related.

They are both just large Galliformes that have evolved similar courtship displays.

Interestingly, the turkey was thought to be the same species as the  helmeted Guineafowl, which was brought to England from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). The helmeted Guineafowl are from Africa, but they were common as poultry in the Ottoman Empire. That’s why the scientific name for the turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, and the scientific name for the helmeted Guineafowl is Numida meleagris.  Meleagris refers to the Guineafowl.

The Guineafowl were called “Turkey birds,” as were the ones found in North America. It was only when it was discovered that the two were distinct species that turkey began to refer to the North American bird and Guineafowl to the African bird.

Ironically, peafowl are more closely related to Guineafowl than turkeys, so if any species should be confused with Guineafowl, it is the peafowl. Now, there is a missing link between the Guineafowl and peafowl. For decades, ornate feathers were coming out of Central Africa, and these were classified as peafowl by traders. However, taxonomists would say that these were imports from India that came through Africa. There was no such thing as an African peafowl.

However, in 1936, James Chapin, an American ornithologist, declared the existence of a new species of peafowl indigenous to the Congo Basin. It was called the Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis) . His discovery was not in the jungles of darkest Africa, however. His discovery came from two taxidermied specimens that were in the Congo Museum in Belgium (which, you might recall, once owned the Congo.)

congo peafowl

Congo Peafowl

The congo peafowl looks like a juvenile Indian peafowl or maybe a cross between a peafowl and a Guineafowl. The Congo peafowl is thought to be the missing link between the peafowl and Guineafowl families.

However, very little is known about the Congo peafowl. It is not widely studied in the wild. There aren’t many of them. Further, their habitat is rapidly shrinking, as trees are felled. This species is considered “vulnerable” by the International Conservation Union.

I am somewhat amazed that I was able to generate this post simply from watching a video of a domestic turkey and an Indian peafowl. I certainly didn’t think it was going to launch into a post on the Congo peafowl or why we call the turkey a turkey.

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The Gunnison grouse or Gunnison sage grouse was once considered a subspecies of the greater sage grouse. These birds are native to the sage brush range of the West. They require forbs and grasses to sustain themselves and dense stands sage for cover and winter browse. They also require access to creeks and small streams, where they can drink and brouse on more lush vegetation.

The greater sage grouse lives in similar habitat, but the Gunnison was southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah,  northeastern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico.  Today, it is found in two isolated populations in Colorado and Utah. The greater sage grouse has a much more extensive range is frequently shot as a game bird.

Until the year 2000, the Gunnison sage grouse was regarded as the endemic subspecies of the Greater sage grouse. It was only when it was discovered that the Gunnison was genetically distinct that the American Ornithological Union changed its species status. These studies found that the two rarely did so.

The mating display of the Gunnison is different from the Greater sage grouse. Both of then go through elaborate lek displays that involve popping their airsacks on their breasts. The cycle of popping lasts about three seconds in both species. However, the Gunnison pops nine times in that three second cycle, while the Greate sage grouse pops his air sacks only twice during its cycle. The Gunnison produces fewer cycles per minute, and the noise produced through the air sacs is quite different for both species.

Gunnison hens grouse will actually avoid the mating sounds of a male Greater sage grouse.  So it is pretty clear that they are separate species. After all, we do know that behavior is one way that species remain “pure.” Some animals could easily interbreed, but their mating behavior simply prevents it.

The Audubon Society has listed the Gunnison as one of the ten most endangered bird species in North America. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to put them on the Endangered Species List in 2005.

The main reason why it became endangered is really quite simple. The ranchers of that region have allowed the cattle to overgraze the range lands, destroying grouse habitat and food sources. Furthermore, in the southwestern part of its range, there are known natural gas and oil reserves that have not been fully explored. Considering who was in power in 2005, we know than anything that would have encumbered the oil and gas and ranching interests simply would not have been considered. Cattle erode the soil, making great washes on the land, and they eat lots of forage, denuding the land of adequate cover and sustenance for the Gunnison grouse. Really suitable habitat for the Gunnison is becoming more and more fragmented.

So the Gunnison is one of the newest recognized species in the US, and it is also one of the most endangered. However, we need our government to recognize it as endangered. Heck, we need our government to recognize it as a species. Refusing to recognize it as a distinct species is one of the tactics used to deny it Endangered Species status.

A very  informative website that explains the biology of the Gunnison grouse can be found here. Another website with lots of information on this species and the fight to put it on the Endangered Species List can be found here.

Finally, I would be remiss here if I didn’t show you a video of the sage grouse species displaying in their leks. It is quite bizarre.

Here’s the Gunnison’s:


And the Greater sage grouse:


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