By Robert Mulvihill / National Aviary ornithologist
At this time of the year almost everyone is interested in, and thankful for, birds -- well, one of them anyway. In addition to domesticated varieties, there are two species of turkey: the wild turkey and the ocellated turkey. The National Aviary is not home to either of those turkey varieties, but it is home to a bird that is classified in the same avian order (Galliformes) and family (Phasianidae) as turkeys: the Malayan Great Argus, a large brown pheasant-like bird from southeast Asia.
Great Argus males, like male (tom) turkeys and also male Indian peafowl (peacocks), are polygynous, meaning they try to mate with many females. They attract females with their calls as well as with exotic-looking displays of their feathers. Picture a tom turkey, all puffed up and strutting, with its rusty tail feathers spread out in a fan. Now picture an iridescent blue peacock showing off with his long shimmering many-eyed tail feathers spread out behind him. Less familiar but no less impressive is the displaying male Great Argus, hidden behind a flamboyant spray of ocellated brown and gray feathers.
Incredibly, each of these birds creates a showy fan using different groups of feathers. The turkey is the only one that actually spreads its tail feathers (called rectrices). The peacock has very short rectrices, and it is the male's extraordinary tail coverts -- small, unobvious feathers covering the base of the tail feathers in most birds -- that are grandly elongated and decorated. Finally, the Great Argus, which has the longest tail feathers of any bird in the world, doesn't use these in his display. Instead, when displaying to prospective mates, he creates an amazing fan by bowing forward and spreading his wings. The inner flight feathers of the wing, called secondaries, are exceptionally elongated in the male Great Argus, and when he fans his wings off to each side, they give much the same effect as the fanned tail of a turkey and the spread tail coverts of a peacock.
This week, let's be thankful for all the ways that nature has found to make birds both interesting and beautiful -- and sometimes delicious, too.
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