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Mating season rings death knell for cheer pheasants in Nepal’s western Himalayas

A pair of cheer pheasants.

A pair of cheer pheasants in Nepal. Image by Hari Basnet.

  • In Nepal, springtime is marked by the distinctive mating calls of male cheer pheasants (Catreus wallichii) as they echo through the forests.
  • Hunters hear these calls, enabling them to kill the birds for meat, exacerbating the threats against the species.
  • Conservationists call for further study and efforts to protect cheer pheasants and their habitat, along with local surveys and community involvement.

KATHMANDU — One of the ways people living in the western Himalayas of India, Pakistan and Nepal know that the spring season has started is by listening to male cheer pheasants (Catreus wallichii) make their distinctive “chewewoo” mating calls that can be heard echoing through the forests in the morning.

While the calls help attract females and grow their population, they give away their location to hunters who kill them for their meat. This, coupled with various other anthropogenic factors, has had a telling effect on the birds’ population in Nepal’s western Himalayas, suggested a recent study looking at the species outside its stronghold protected areas in the country.

“We saw that people are hunting cheer pheasants at a massive scale in far-western Nepal,” said Hari Basnet, lead author of the study published in the journal Ornithological Science. “We saw that the bird prefers to live in areas that people usually visit with shrubs for fodder and grass,” said Basnet.

A pair of cheer pheasants.
Cheer pheasants live in areas that people usually visit with shrubs for fodder and grass, which makes it easy for hunters who kill them for their meat. Image by Hari Basnet.

As previous studies on the species had shown the bird lives mainly in the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve area of Nepal, the researchers didn’t know the extent of the population outside the region. “That’s why, as part of the study, we produced a radio awareness program in the far-west region in 2013 asking local people to report sightings of the bird in their area,” said Laxman Poudyal, co-author of the study.

After receiving a good response from the listeners, they monitored the bird at seven locations from May 16 to June 1, 2014, and a further five call count stations from May 13-24, 2016. They identified more sites following interviews with locals in 2014.

“We used the dawn call count method, under which we counted the number of individuals early in the morning by monitoring their calls,” said Basnet. “We also recorded cheer pheasant sightings and nest sites during and after the dawn surveys.”

They found that the main threats to the species in the region are trapping, shooting, egg collection and forest fire. “The species has already disappeared from some of the locations where local people observed them frequently in the past,” said Basnet.

The list of threats is also corroborated by IUCN, the global conservation authority, and the National Pheasant Conservation Action Plan (2019-23). IUCN says that cheer pheasants, categorized as “largely depleted” in October 2021, was reclassified as “vulnerable” a year later due to hunting and habitat loss in its entire geographical range.

Cheer pheasant habitat.
Besides being hunted, habitat loss in its entire geographical range is also a cause for the cheer pheasant’s decline in Nepal. Image by Hari Basnet.

In Nepal, according to the action plan, the cheer pheasant is not only classified as endangered but is also one of nine protected bird species in the country. IUCN, in addition to acknowledging hunting pressure, says the situation may have been exacerbated by increased gun ownership in Nepal following the decade-long Maoist insurgency that began in 1996.

“Whenever people see them, their first instinct is to kill them as they can’t fly much,” says Poudyal. Conservationists say they believe people see the bird as a free source of protein and that the meat can cure ailments such as asthma, body pain and even fever.

In addition to hunting, people are also using other techniques to kill the bird, again exploiting their mating calls. When herds come across the birds’ nests, they take their eggs with them and grow the bird at home in captivity. “When the bird reaches maturity, they take them to the jungle, and tie them to a tree. When it makes mating calls, other birds come looking for the bird and are trapped or killed,” he added.

The birds’ mating season brings another danger to the fore: forest fires, which are rampant during early spring, when it is dry before the July/August monsoon that supplies most of the country’s rain. As the birds live and nest on the ground, forest fires can easily destroy their habitat. The researchers even observed a nest being destroyed by fire in a community forest during the course of the study.

“The cheer pheasants get their name from the chir pine trees [Pinus roxburghii] under which they are found to be nesting,” said researcher Paras Bikram Singh, who wasn’t involved in the study. Pines in general are known to easily catch fire with relatively flammable leaves and accumulation of dead lower branches.

A cheer pheasant in a cage.
Conservationists say they believe people see the cheer pheasant as a free source of protein and that the meat can cure ailments such as asthma, body pain and even fever. Image by Hari Basnet.

The action plan, prepared in response to the threats, aims to help more pheasants survive and have a safe place to live. There are four things the plan outlines to make this happen. First, learn more about pheasants and what puts them in danger. Second, focus on protecting pheasants and where they live. Third, see if helping the people who live nearby can also help the pheasants. Fourth, work together with various national and international NGOs to make this plan successful.

“However, as the plan was launched during the COVID period, its implementation hasn’t been that effective,” said Singh. “We now need to come up with a more effective plan after the current action plan expires this year,” he added.

The authors of the study, meanwhile, called for further research to better protect cheer pheasants from human-made dangers. It’s important to focus research efforts on places where these birds still live even with these threats, they noted. It would also be helpful to do surveys in areas where locals have reported seeing cheer pheasants, they said, adding that these surveys would help explain how these birds are doing and how they’re being affected by human-made dangers.

“Even though they may not have much knowledge about conservation, local people really want to protect the cheer pheasant,” said Poudyal. “To stop the hunting and save the remaining birds, it’s important to create a conservation program that involves the community and everyone who cares about these birds,” he added.

The authors also noted that communities living near the areas where the bird lives are often ignored and don’t have access to resources. To help these communities, authorities could create special places where people could watch the birds and promote them for eco-tourism. This could help boost their local economies and encourage them to address the threats the birds face, especially during the mating season, they said.

Banner image: A pair of cheer pheasants in Nepal. Image by Hari Basnet.

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Basnet, H., Poudyal, L. P., Shah, G., Thakuri, D. C., & Inskipp, C. (2023). Cheer pheasant Catreus Wallichii distribution in far-western Nepal with notes on threats. Ornithological Science, 22(1). doi:10.2326/osj.22.57

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