The true argus pheasant of Malaysia, one of the most remarkable birds known, is the sort of creature which the proverbial blind man in a dark room could hardly miss, for if either party moved about at all he would be pretty certain to come across the enormous centre-tail feathers, twisted-tipped, and between four and five feet long. The wings, however, of the cock argus are still more extraordinary, the secondary quills, which in most birds barely cover the flight feathers in repose and generally expose a good deal of the tips of these, being about twice as long as the "fights" and projecting beyond the end of the body in repose much as the wings of a grasshopper do ; in fact, this extension of the wings in the rear and the long straight line they form with the long tail give the bird a remarkably rectilineal outline, and it is anything but graceful, although lightly built and with an easy gait.
The plumage also as seen in repose is nothing striking, being very like a guinea-fowl's scheme of colouring carried out in browns and buffs instead of greys and whites. The hen's is coloured much like the cock's in the exposed portions ; neither sex has spurs and both have red legs, and the skin of the head, which is nearly bare, especially in the cock, of a dark blue. The hen's tail is much like a common fowl's, of medium length and folded ; otherwise she reminds one more of a small brown hen turkey than of anything else. She weighs about three and a half pounds, and the cock is only about a pound more, although his centre tail feathers bring up his length often to six feet, and the over-developed wing quills make the closed wing nearly a yard long ; so, though he is mostly feathers, he looks a very large bird and is nearly as long as any existing species.
The argus is, however, very seldom seen at all in the wild state and has seldom been shot by Europeans. It is never found in open country, and in its chosen haunts, the most dense recesses of the evergreen forests of its home, it has no difficulty m slipping silently away when approached, and it habitually retreats into the thickest cover when alarmed. Even a dog cannot always make them rise, as they are swift of foot ; indeed, they probably seldom use their wings except to go up to roost at night, or in case of real need to seek refuge from a quadruped foe. How far the cock could really fly in the open with his peculiar wings, which are constructed all the wrong way for flight—the pinion quills, not the secondaries, being the essential ones—would be an interesting point to solve by experiment, but the exertion of working his great floppy fans would no doubt soon tire him out.
These curious wings, however, form the chief part of the strange and unique display of this bird, which may now and then be seen in captivity, although the argus is not a free shower like the peacock. When displaying, the wings are raised behind and lowered in front, with all quills fully expanded and the first quills touching in front. Now can be seen the characteristic and celebrated ornaments of the male about which so much has been written by theorists on sexual selection : the wonderful rows of eye-spots along the outer webs of the great secondaries, plainly tinted but exquisitely shaded to resemble balls in cups, which everyone must have noticed in these quills when worn in ladies' hats, and the delicate colouring of the pinion-quills with their dark blue shafts, leopard spots, and white-peppered chestnut bands along the inner sides of the shafts. All these artistic excellencies are supposed to please the female, but there is as yet no evidence that she is impressed by them. Her mate is rather handicapped in his manoeuvres to give her a good front view by having to keep his head behind the huge screen formed by his wings, which, with the exception of the ends of the long feathers of the raised tail, are all that can be seen from the front; but now and then he pokes his head through from behind the scenes, so it is said. In any case what he presents to the hen is a fan, not a bird, and even in repose, as I have said before, he is not elegant, his decoration being so exaggerated—in fact, he bears the same relation to the peacock that a lady in the silly crinolines once worn does to one gracefully wearing a becoming if lengthy train.
The male argus is a typical crusty old bachelor in his way of living. He selects a small open spot in the forest, and clears off all the dead leaves and twigs and removes all weeds. He is so fussy about keeping this masculine boudoir clean that several of the poaching methods of capturing him depend on this fad of his, the dead-fall or what not being released by his pulling at a peg stuck in his floor, which he immediately tries to remove on coming home. The clearing is no doubt used for a display-place, and it certainly is the male bird's home, for he roosts near it, and is generally to be found in it, when not out searching for food, which consists of insects, slugs, and fallen berries, a fruit very like a prune being an especial favourite. Although these birds do not seem to wander about and fight, they challenge, or at any rate call, quite freely; the note is expressed by the Malay name, but is a two-syllabled one —it always sounded to me like " who-whoop" ! The hens are no doubt summoned by this; their own call is, according to Davison, "like how-owoo, how-owoo, the last syllable much prolonged, repeated ten or a dozen times, but getting more and more rapid until it ends in a series of owoo's run together." Both sexes have a bark-like alarm note, and their calls above described can be heard a long way, the male's as much as a mile. Even the two sexes in this bird do not associate constantly, and the hens not only have no regular home, but the breeding-season varies, though eggs are not to be found in the depth of the rains. The eggs are rather like turkeys' eggs, and seven or eight form the clutch. The chicks fledge as rapidly as those of the tragopans, so often miscalled " argus."
The present bird, which ranges to Sumatra, is rather of interest to the naturalist than the sportsman, but the plumage of the cock—at any rate the eyed feathers of the wings—is much used for the plume trade. This use, of course, needs regulating, and the killing of the bird ought to be absolutely prohibited, though it might be permitted to snare it in such a way as not to injure it, and release it after cutting off a two-foot length of the eye-bearing plumes, which could well be spared.