Copper Pheasants

S.s. ijimae, courtesy of the World Pheasant Association

*****

From The Birds of Japan, Mark Brazil: 'Five subspecies have been described which become progressively darker and more richly coloured farther south and in southern Kyushu; and S.s. ijimae has the lower back and rump virtually all white. S.s. scintillans occurs in Honshu north of about 3510'N (but intergrades with intermedius and subrufus); S.s. intermedius occurs in the southwestern parts of Honshu and Shikoku and intergrades with subrufus; S.s. subrufus occurs along the Pacific side of Honshu south of about 3510'N, in southern Chiba-ken. southern Shizuoka-ken, Mie-ken, Yamaguchi-ken, rarely Ibaraki-ken, Saitama-ken, and southwest Shikoku; S.s. soemmerringii occurs in northern and central Kyushu; and S.s. ijimae in central and southern Kyushu.'

*****

27 January 2005: Fergus Crystal

I would like to transcribe some notes on the Copper Pheasant Syrmaticus soemmerringii, concentrating on the spectacular subspecies ijimae found in southern Kyushu. I live in the southern Osumi peninsula of Kagoshima-ken, where I have had the opportunity to observe the breeding habits of this subspecies close to home. The town where I am currently living is called Tashiro. It is just north of Cape Sata, the southern most point of 'mainland' Japan. I have only been in Japan for two years, so the data is a little scant, but hopefully this will be of some interest.


Habitat

Copper Pheasant ssp. ijimae in this area show a preference for mixed cedar/evergreen woodland with some understory bamboo, pitcher plants etc, between 300 and 900 m altitude, but more often at 500-700 m. Cedar plantations are tolerated as long as they are fairly undisturbed and have some element of evergreen woodland nearby. They show a preference for steep slopes. They feed in litter/earth churned up by feeding Wild Boar, and birds are often found near groups of this mammal. In summer, as the soil dries out in old 'churned up' places, it creates dust bowls for bathing. I have found several such dust bowls in susuki grass at the side of tracks, often at the top of sheer forested slopes. Males display and feed in the open on quiet forest tracks, particularly on spring evenings before dusk.


Breeding

In southern Kagoshima, breeding occurs from mid-March to mid-July. Fully grown young and newly hatched young have been observed in adjoining territories simultaneously in late May. The birds are on territories from March (see 'Display' notes). In one area of Tashiro, three territories occupy sections of steep hillside adjoining a forest track. Sightings were recorded along 1.7 km of track, about 400 m apart, suggesting territories in this area are quite densely packed. Sightings of pairs at each point were made here on 9 March 2004. On 23 May 2004, a male and a female were noted close to four newly hatched young. At the next territory, two nearly full-grown young were flushed. At the third point, a male near a probable sitting female was noted. In another area of hill forest in Tashiro on 5 July 2004, threat displays by males were heard at two points spaced one km apart along a track, suggested the presence of young.


Display

'Wing-whirring' (I prefer to call it 'wing-throbbing') is heard in Tashiro throughout the year, but especially during the breeding season. Males 'throb' their wings while stretching to an erect posture, with the neck stretched out and down (like a 'teapot spout'). The hunched back in this posture displays the blaze of the rump to full effect. Sometimes a double throb is given, with a brief pause between abrupt flutters: a short throb, a pause, then a longer throb (total about 1.5-2 secs). The sound created is not heard so much as felt in the forest by an intruder into the male`s territory (hence 'throb'). The effect is quite disconcerting, as the throb feels like the hum of a hawk moth close to your ears, even though the bird may be more than 20 m away. The sound reverberates off tree trunks, etc. I think the throbbing has a mainly territorial purpose, but is also performed as a display during pair mating. Its echoing quality is probably quite effective at diverting Wild Boar and Japanese Macaque away from sitting females.

I recorded males in display at roadsides at Sata Hetsuka (mid-September 2003) and Tsurugigao Tashiro (early September 2003). Both individuals were very bold when my car drew near, like certain grouse species in Europe . Wing-throbbing was heard/felt at Tashiro Shinden (March 2004), Nejime Kobadake (two males, early April 2004), Tashiro Iwasaki (mid-April 2004). The males' far-carrying, rather hoarse, fox-like 'koh...koh' call I have heard only twice, in May 2004 at Miike, and in Tashiro, also in May.


Status

Numbers in Tashiro and the southern Osumi peninsula are low but probably stable and under-recorded. As birds can tolerate quite intensive cedar plantations, and territories are probably large and change throughout the year, there is probably still a fairly stable population here. There is still a threat of birds being bagged by hunters during the hunting season . I have seen mounted specimens in two places in Onejime, but these are both about 20 years old or more. According to my friend Sumiko Hayase, a Tashiro birdwatcher, the Yamadori were more plentiful after the war up until about the mid-sixties, when in her childhood she would often catch sight of birds on her walk to and from school. However, after large-scale cedar planting in the 1970s, the population was depleted considerably, and this more than hunting is probably the main reason for the species' decline nationally. Today in Tashiro, sightings of Copper Pheasant near villages and main roads are few and far between.


Detecting Signs

1. Feathers: in Tashiro, body feathers were found near territories in spring. Tail moult occurs in July/August, but I have so far not been lucky enough to find any cast plumes.

2.Droppings: the male's are dark blackish, dropped in a small heap, with white mucusy tip to one end. Found a few times on tracks near territories.

3. Rustling: leaf-rustling from feeding or fleeing birds is often the first hint of their presence. If you hear rustling you should stand dead still and try to 'stalk' a sighting without snapping any twigs. This species is extremely alert, and a cough or a twig snap is more than enough to send them scuttling into cover. Although fleeing birds sometimes run for cover with a bizarre horizontal gait, neck fully extended parallel to the ground with crown depressed, they more often run with neck erect and crown feathers raised. Males will often take to the wing as part of the escape, even if only for short distances. Females I have recorded a few times as freezing stock still until virtually underfoot before flushing. I have only had brief views of female ijimae but I think they show whitish-buff spots on tertials that form a kind of upside-down 'V' when seen from behind. Possibly these ocelli are larger and paler than in other subspecies. Rustling needs to be listened to carefully to rule out feeding troops of macaque, Wild Boar groups and feeding thrushes-- in particular Pale Thrush, Turdus pallidus, which gives a soft 'yup' call while feeding that sounds similar to male ijimae's 'kyup' (see below).


Calls

Copper Pheasant ssp. ijimae has a surprisingly varied vocal repertoire. In addition to the oft-quoted 'koh...koh' call, breeding birds call in a number of different ways. In the territories studied in Tashiro March-May 2004:

1. a flushed male (with small young nearby) gave an abrupt 'kyutt' with neck stretched downwards as in display.

2. a clucking but soft 'wup' contact call given repeatedly by a wary pair guarding young.

3. very young chicks gave a plaintive cheep, a slightly upwards-inflected 'truip'.

4. a flushed female's alarm was an incredibly high-pitched, electric clicking series (nearly as high as Asian Stubtail, but much louder) followed by a slower series of repeated 'wok' calls, these last like low grunts. This female was with recently hatched young.

5. Male feeding call was a surprisingly soft 'kyup' similar to but slightly lower than Pale Thrush (see above). Other variants of this call are 'kup' and a more glottal 'ku'.

6. Both male and female uttered a distinctive hissed 'heese!' on flushing. This was heard outside the breeding season, and is also given on take-off.


Akayamadori and intergrades

'Akayamadori' is the Japanese name for the northern Kyushu nominate subspecies. Males are deep-colored with a purplish sheen to the neck feathers, similar to ijimae, but the tail possibly averages longer than in male ijimae and the white on the rump is replaced by a beautiful shining amber colour. I have recorded wing-throbbing and seen an adult male at Kunimidake on the border between Miyazaki and Kumamoto prefectures, and I also saw a mounted male specimen in a cultural museum near Hitoyoshi City, southern Kumamoto (all mid-August 2004).

In the valleys near Aya in Miyazaki, interesting males that are basically similar to ijimae but have reduced white (restricted mostly to the uppertail coverts) or in one case only five tiny specks of white on the rump. They appear to lack the longer tail and amber coloration of nominate, and may well represent a different subspecies that has so far been overlooked as a hybrid or intergrade population. According to A. Nakamichi, Kyushu birdwatchers have noted unusual population groups in northern Kagoshima. Nominate, intergrade/ hybrid and ijimae have all been recorded between Kurino and the Miike/Ebino plateau area in the last few years. Clearly the populations here need further study.


Kagoshima ken, Kimotsuki gun, Tashiro cho Fumoto 485 893-2401 JAPAN



*****


A Kantori search also turned up this (excerpted) message, seemingly unanswered:

9 October 2004: Myles Lamont

I have been told that there are numerous game farms releasing a large number of hybrid Copper Pheasants, regardless of their status.