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Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis) Photo by René Lausberg

Just in time for the holidays, here is a colorful fancy fowl to enjoy! The Palawan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) lives in the humid rainforests of the Palawan islands, a small chain of islands which are part of the Philippines and which are located in the Sulu Sea (to the southwest of Manila and just north of Malaysia).  If you count their splendid tails, male Palawan peacock-pheasants grow to be a half a meter (18 inches) long.  Females are much smaller and plainer.  The pheasants voraciously hunt the many invertebrates which live in the jungle and they live on a varied diet of insects, myriapods, mollusks, spiders, and isopods as well as smaller vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and baby snakes.  They also eat some berries and seeds.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

In a world of beautiful birds, the male Palawan peacock-pheasant stands out because of his black plumage, his svelte eye mask, his erectile crest, and above all because of the large iridescent green-blue ocelli on his magnificent tail (which he can fan above himself in the manner of a peacock).  From an earlier post, you will recall that ocelli are ornamental “eyes” made of feathers.  The birds are monogamous—which is to say they form tightly bonded pairs which look after the nest together.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Sadly, peacock-pheasants are tropical birds which do not take well to aviaries and bird farms.  The species is listed as “vulnerable” because of the swift deforestation of the Philippine jungles and because of overcollecting of the magnificent feathers, however the Palawan peacock-pheasant does not seem to be very likely to go extinct soon—which is splendid news for bird-lovers and aesthetes!

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

Pursuant to yesterday’s post about the many-eyed giant Argus, here are some animals which have “argus” in their names (I have counted both common names and proper binomial scientific names).  What a magnificent gallery of variegated creatures!  I guess biologists and taxonomists also find the story of argus compelling (or maybe they get tired of describing lovely stippled and variegated creatures with the pedestrian word “spotted”).
Bodhadschia argus is a sea cucumber. When threatened or irritated it ejects sticky toxic threads called Cuvierian tubules from…the rear orifice of its digestive system.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)

The chocolate argus (Junonia hedonia) a butterfly of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia.

The Argus moray (Muraena argus) is apparently covered with white spots, but this charismatic facial portrait by Scott McGee was the best I could find.

A handsome Argus monitor (Varanus panoptes). It looks like he is ready for bathtime!

The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) aka "the Frankenfish" is a vicious and succesful fish from China, Siberia, and the Koreas. I should probably feature it as an invasive animal which is "on-the-make" around the world.

I mentioned the great argus (Argusianus argus) yesterday. Here a female bird checks out a male's display.

Cyprae argus is a beautiful member of the cowry family from the waters of southeast Africa.The Blue-spotted Grouper (Cephalopholis argus) is a splendid lurking fish from coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The spotted scat (Scatophagus argus) is a pugnacious little fish from brackish waters of Japan, New Guinea and Southeastern Australia. Don't pet them! Those spines are toxic!

Paphiopedilum argus is a lovely lady-slipper orchid from high limestone ridges of the Philippines.

The Brown argus butterfly (Aricia agestis) is gradually moving its habitat northwards in Great Britain.

The list keeps going!  There are too many arguses in nature.  I’m going to call it quits and enjoy my weekend….

I apologize for my absence yesterday.  My munificent otter and I spent a lovely vacation day visiting the Bronx Zoo.  I plan on writing a post about the history of zoos– which occupy a pivotal location in the often-murderous relationship between humans and wild animals.  Today however I am going to turn my back on that fraught topic to write about a remarkable animal I encountered yesterday.

The best experience at a zoo is to encounter a new animal and strike up a bond with it.  This is one of the things that makes a zoo visit rewarding–to return and visit old friends and see how they are doing (it can also make zoo outings terribly sad, when beloved animals and their families fall ill or die).

Yesterday I was standing beside an aviary cage, which was apparently empty except for big leafy bushes, when a spectacular bird leaped out of a flowering shrub, sprinted to a spot immediately in front of me and performed a friendly impromptu dance.  It was the Golden Pheasant or “Chinese Pheasant“, (Chrysolophus pictus).  Here’s a picture, but be aware that it does not do the bird justice at all.  This bird looks like something created by an eccentric Taoist god drunk upon the glories of the courts of heaven!

Chrysolophus pictus

When the pheasant at the zoo was done showing off, he stared beadily at me with as if demanding some sort of tribute.  As I moved away to look at lesser pheasants he displayed signs of great displeasure.  I could have stared at him all day.  This sort of pheasant is reported to be quite fearless and friendly and it seems that the Bronx Zoo’s specimen is no exception.

The Golden pheasant is a great success story.  Indigenous to the forests and mountains of western China, they have spread across China due to their popularity as ornamental birds (they have a long history in China’s art and literature).  They have also spread abroad, and today boast colonies in England and America.  Aristocrats and the sporting rich once imported them, released them into alien forests and fields, and then set out to gun them down.  Imagine The Most Dangerous Game or Hard Target (but with the part of John-Claude Van Damme played by a pheasant).  Fortunately, the hen of the species possesses a more prudent nature than the outgoing male.  Additionally both sexes can run like greyhounds and are capable of making themselves invisible, even in the teeming cities of China.

An all-yellow variant demonstrates the birds' expressiveness.

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