This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
THE WESTERN TRAGOPAN is a scarce, shy, and elusive bird. Males are as beautiful to behold as they are rare to spot. Locals call the species jujurana, king of birds. Perhaps 3,300 survive in the wild, in India’s Himachal Pradesh state.
As Munmun Dhalaria watched from a bird blind, this male jujurana stood on “a boulder in front of me to continually sound his territorial call.” She suspected he was proclaiming his turf to other calling males in the area. But Dhalaria saw another cause for the call when she emerged from the blind: A female jujurana was hiding next to it.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MUNMUN DHALARIA
That’s where filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria spent most of 2017 and 2018, making a documentary on the jujurana. One day as she hid in a bird blind, a male drew near, splendid in his orange-feather ascot and white-spotted black cloak. After browsing for food, he hopped onto a boulder and began calling, aiming to woo females and warn off rivals. Dhalaria, a National Geographic explorer, watched and filmed the bird for 35 minutes, one of the longest documented jujurana sightings in the wild.
Conservationists see captive breeding and habitat protection as key to keeping India’s colorful western tragopan, locally known as jujurana, viable in the wild.
FILM BY MUNMUN DHALARIA. SUPPORTED BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORERS GRANT
Habitat/Range: Endemic to the western Himalaya in northern India, the bird prefers undisturbed forests with lots of undergrowth where it can feed and hide.
Conservation Status: The International Union for Conservation of Nature labels the bird vulnerable; it is hunted for its meat and plumage, and its habitat is fragmented.
Witnessing a mating call is one thing—an actual mating, quite another. It’s sometimes glimpsed at the world’s only captive-breeding program for this pheasant cousin, in Himachal Pradesh. The male sidles up to the female. He deploys his finery: His head sprouts blue horns, his tail feathers fan, his rainbow wattle unfurls. At passion’s peak, he ducks out of view, bursts forth again, rushes the female, mounts—and they mate for 10 seconds. Though brief, it’s effective. During the next six to eight weeks, she’ll lay three to five eggs and hatch them. Captive-bred birds form a reserve as wild populations shrink. The program has about three dozen birds and aims to release some into the wild in 2020.