Considerable intermediacy between most of the described subspecies suggests that much of the variation observed is probably clinal, and validity of many races therefore perhaps dubious; race affinis doubtfully distinct from nominate cruentus, as is holoptilus from rocki, and annae from berezowskii. Subspecies sometimes thought to fall into two groups, the “Red-winged sinensis group”, incorporating sinensis, berezowskii (including annae), beicki and michaelis, and the “Green-winged cruentus group”, with all other races; this division, however, although geographically logical, appears unsatisfactory in terms of morphological characters of the taxa. Fourteen subspecies usually recognized.
Male 44–48 cm (tail 16·5–18 cm); female 39·5–42 cm (tail 14–15·5 cm); 410–655 g. Rather small partridge-like pheasant. Female much duller, mainly brown, with forehead, face and throat rufescent-cinnamon, sometimes tinged with crimson; some females have small spurs. Juvenile much duller than adult; at c. 3 weeks old, male clearly greyer than female. Considerable variation between races in males in extent of red and black on head of males, which increases eastwards between W Himalayas and Myanmar (but N & E of this males show none), and in coloration of underparts, as well as in greater upperwing-coverts, which are green towards SW and reddish towards NE; females are less variable, but are generally more reddish brown in the Himalayas, but paler and greyer further N & E: race tibetanus is most like nominate, but male is more crimson on head and breast, and female overall darker; race kuseri is even more extensively and darker crimson than previous race, with blackish ear-coverts and collar, darker green on wings and breast, and female is slightly darker than tibetanus; race geoffroyi lacks any crimson, having a very uniform grey throat and breast, and much shorter crest and hackles than race clarkei, while female is duller and more coarsely spotted white; race marionae is similar to race kuseri, but blackish areas on head and neck are more broken with crimson, and upperparts more narrowly streaked white; race rocki is less crimson on breast and has longer crest than race kuseri, with less blackish on head and neck, but does have black lores; race clarkei has much less crimson (sometimes none) on head an breast than most of the preceding races, with a black forehead, but grey head-sides and throat, a longer crest, and female is greyer brown; race michaelis is paler than next race and has greenish shaft-streaks on rump and uppertail-coverts; race beicki has wing-coverts paler brown than race berezowskii, with some green admixed, while female is paler and greyer brown; race berezowskii lacks crimson on head and breast, like previous two races, but has reddish-brown (not green or greenish) wing-coverts and prominent ear-tufts; and race sinensis is darker grey above than other Chinese taxa. with black-edged white shaft-streaks and no green on wing-coverts, while female is paler brown (less greyish) with more extensively white-vermiculated uppertail-coverts.
Territorial call a peculiar phrase of hoarse piercing squeals, “glee-glee-keweee!-keweee!-keweee!” or similar. Also a variety of short clucks and a strident “chic” in alarm, as well as a high-pitched, repeated “sree” uttered while foraging and a long, drawn-out, high-pitched trill (said to recall a Milvus kite), which is given by both sexes and apparently serves in contact and to regroup the scattered members of a covey once perceived danger has passed#R.
In Nepal, inhabits high-altitude rhododendron scrub and other types of subalpine scrub at 3200–4400 m; in India, found at 2750–4500 m, e.g. in subalpine scrub; in Bhutan mainly observed at 2550–4200 m, with one record as low as 1600 m#R#R. Also occurs in pine and juniper forests, and in bamboo. Prefers areas close to water#R. Slope, aspect and location, as well as seasonal climatic extremes, all influence the altitude at which the species’ favoured habitats occur#R. No recent information from Myanmar but formerly found above 2500 m. Roosts communally, either in trees or on the ground#R.
Food and feeding
In Nepal, feeds principally on moss, leaf litter and grass shoots; droppings in spring included beetle wing cases; other insects also taken. In autumn, apparently feeds on small fruits, leaves, seeds, moss spore cases, bamboo shoots, berries and rose pips; in winter, diet believed to be primarily fir and juniper shoots, berries, moss and bamboo leaves. After heavy snow, species seen feeding on lily seed cases and associated insects. Feeds by scratching; birds seen feeding at all times of day; will feed arboreally on moss-covered branches, but also digs through snow#R. Typically forms groups of between five and 30 birds, occasionally even 60–70, in non-breeding season, with the size of flocks normally significantly larger in early (versus late) winter#R, and such flocks probably largely compromise fairly close relatives#R; in summer, groups of non-breeding subadult males and males whose females are incubating also form#R. During the incubation period males are more vigilant than females and females spend more time feeding than males, with female behaviour related to male vigilance#R.
Lays from mid Apr to late June; most nests found in May. Coveys disband in Apr in Bhutan, when pairs form#R. Believed to be monogamous, but polygamy and polyandry reported. Nest is a depression in ground, lined with dead grass stems; five nests at 3600–3650 m, and one at 4000 m. Lays 2–7 pinkish-buff eggs variably marked with reddish and dark brown#R; incubation 26–29 days (in captivity) but 37 days in wild#R, by female alone, which usually takes single break per day, but this lasts > 6 hours during which time eggs regularly experience embyronic hypothermia#R; chicks have dull rufous down on upperparts with dark brown marks, paler rufous below. Both adults tend chicks#R. Breeding success in SW China: hatching rate 80% in one study (> 90% in another)#R, chick survival rate c. 31% and chick mortality rate 62·5% during first ten days of life#R.
Extent of altitudinal movement due to snowfall varies with geographical location. In summer occurs around treeline and on alpine meadows above, descending in autumn to open coniferous forests of fir and juniper at lower end of altitude range. Home range size increases during breeding season, then declines marginally during period when female is brooding#R, and it also increases again towards the end of winter, when the ranges of different coveys overlaps#R.
Status and conservation
Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Mace Lande: cruentus/affinis/tibetanus/geoffroyi/berezowski/beicki/michaelis/sinensis/annae safe; kuseri/rocki/marionae/holoptilus/clarkei vulnerable. CITES II. A widely distributed species with a range of > 650,000 km²; the area of available habitat within this, however, is much less, as habitat is naturally fragmented being in upper hills and is likely to have been reduced by a variety of activities. Subspecies cluster of kuseri, rocki, marionae, holoptilus and clarkei may be vulnerable, as these races have combined range of < 50,000 km², with possibly as little as 25,000 km² of available habitat; probably declining everywhere except in Bhutan, where (like in other Bhuddist areas) it is apparently protected by religious beliefs and it occurs within conservation units such as Thrumshingla National Park#R. Race marionae from Upper Myanmar was very common around Chimli Pass, but was snared by the Yawyins in 1940s; no information since then. Species as a whole is known from more than 70 locations in Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, Gansu and Shaanxi, including Wanlang, Taibaishan, Qilianshan and Feping Natural Reserves; in Nepal from in excess of 20 sites including Langtang, Sagarmatha, Rara Lake and Makalu Borun National Parks, and the Annapurna Conservation Area; in India from at least three sites, in addition to Sikkim, where it is the state bird, and is reported to be common and widespread. Considered common in Bhutan in mid 1930s, and it is still considered to be the commonest pheasant on high-altitude treks#R. Threatened by a variety of habitat pressures, including timber extraction, overgrazing of understorey, and conversion of land to agriculture; also hunted.
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