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The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is a large tropical game fowl from the Phasianidae family. The junglefowl is closely related to pheasants, grouse, quail, partridges, and other such birds of the pheasant family. Wild junglefowl lives in a swath of south Asia and Indochina which runs from Tamil Nadu east to the southern parts of China and includes the Philippines and Indonesia.

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These birds display strong sexual dimorphism.  The hen tends to be a drab brownish color with a hint of red on her face—[erfect for blending into the dense jungle.  Yet one look at the resplendent male with his iridescent green tail feathers, burnished yellow-orange back, and brilliant scarlet comb & wattle reveals a critical truth about the junglefowl: this is the progenitor chicken—the wild species from which all of our many beautiful and delicious chicken breeds descend.  Geneticists tell us there may be a dash of gray junglefowl in there, but the domestic chicken is really effectively the same bird.

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Indeed, the wild junglefowl has the same “cock-a-doodle-doo” call and the same truculent streak (but more so, to equip him for living in the tiger-haunted jungles of Indochina).  Not only does he have excellent vision and a needle-sharp beak, the jungle rooster is also equipped with sickle-like spurs on his legs for self-protection and fighting for mates.  Junglefowl are primarily seed eaters, but they opportunistically eat fruit, insects, small reptiles, and mammals.  Cocks exhibit a courting behavior known as “tidbitting.”  If they find a food source in the presence of a hen, they cluck coaxingly, bob their head, and pick up and drop the food in offering to the female.

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Roosters live by Highlander’s  “there can be only one” credo, and fight each other to the death if they come across each other.  Junglefowl can apparently live longer than 15 years in captivity, but it doesn’t seem like they attain such old age often in the competitive and dangerous jungles where they occur naturally.  They enjoy bathing in dust, are capable of short burst of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites.  The female exclusively broods her eggs and cares for the chicks.

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Ironically purebred junglefowl are starting to vanish from the world due to hybridization with feral domestic chickens. But it takes an ornithologist to tell junglefowl from feral domestic chickens anyway (since they are effectively the same animal), so I am not going to stress about this too much.  It seems like chickens at least might be here to stay awhile.

The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

Here is “The Dream,” the last painting completed by Henri Rousseau, the toll collector who became a self-taught artistic genius at the end of his life. The painting shows Rousseau’s mistress Yadwigha (a long-sundered lover from the painter’s youth). She is naked, reclining on a stuffed divan which magically floats through a jungle filled with lions, strange larger-than-life flowers, tropical birds, and a hidden elephant. The other main figure of the composition is the enigmatic snake charmer who reappears from other Rousseau works and seems to represent the beauty and mystery of the world.  As this dark figure plays the recorder he or she casts a mysterious enchantment upon the fulsome flora and fauna. The work seems to suggest that life is a transient dream of surpassing beauty–but a dream in which the meaning remains wild and elusive. What we think we know is ultimately subsumed by nature and the greater forces of the unknown.

Rousseau wrote a poem to explain the painting, but the poem says little which is not obvious (or which the viewer does not already intuit):

Yadwigha dans un beau rêve
S’étant endormie doucement
Entendait les sons d’une musette
Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.
Pendant que la lune reflète
Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,
Les fauves serpents prêtent l’oreille
Aux airs gais de l’instrument.

(Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a reed instrument
Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument.)

 

 

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance.  Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia.  The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female).  Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!

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Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you.  The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn.  The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.

 Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting.  Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.

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Ocellated Turkey (photo credit: National Geographic)

Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants.  The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests.   The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds).  The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin.  Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue.  The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail.  Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives).  Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!).  Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood.  They have long red legs to run through the jungle.  Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.

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The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood.  Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today).  They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices.  Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation).  Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles.  Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.

A Maya mural at San Bartolo from 100 BC shows the maize god spilling an ocellated turkey’s blood on the cosmic tree. Two turkeys are tied behind him. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

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