An American naturalist has well said that this gorgeous bird reminds one of a humming-bird enlarged to the size of a fowl; and really this does give one some idea of the remarkable appearance of this glory of our hills, for only among the humming-birds do we find such brilliant green and copper as clothe the cock monaul's head and neck, while the purple and blue of his back and wings are only second in brilliancy to the tints further forward. As the bird flies off, however, two more hues are particularly striking, the snow-white patch in the middle of the back, completely hidden in repose by the wings, and the rich chestnut of the short broad partridge-like tail. In fact, in spite of the brilliant colours and peacock-like crest of the male, which have given him the name of Nil-mor and Jungli-mor in Kashmir, there is something very partridge-like about the bird, and to call him the Impeyan Pheasant, as is often done, is rather an abuse of terms, for, although a member of the pheasant family, he is no more a pheasant than he is a jungle fowl or a peacock, but, with his few relatives, stands alone as a type.
The hen, in her mottled-brown plumage, is just like a giant partridge; her only distinctive marks are the bare blue eye-patch she shares with the cock, and the pure white of the throat. Yearling cocks may be at once picked out on the wing by the patch of plain buff which foreshadows the snow-white escutcheon they will bear when in full plumage, which is not till next year, and even second-year birds have the seventh quill brown. The monaul is a heavy, bulky bird, weighing about four and a half pounds in the case of the cock, the hen being about half a pound less. It carries a great amount of breast-meat, and tastes much like a turkey, at any rate during autumn and winter; the thigh sinews run to bone, and need drawing like a turkey's. The monaul is confined to the Himalayas, and is seldom found lower than 5,000 feet even in winter, while in summer it ranges up to the forest limit and even above it, some old males climbing nearly to the snow-line. However, it is, generally speaking, a forest bird, and so usually roosts in trees at night, besides often alighting on them in the day-time when disturbed.
It is a strong-flying wary bird, more of a flyer than a runner, and quite ready to cross a wide valley on the wing when surprised. Its call, which is somewhat like that of the peewit at home, but a whistled instead of a mewing call, is a source of annoyance to sportsmen after big game in the heights, for of course the beasts attend to the warning. Both cock and hen call similarly, and the note is quite unlike that of any other of our game-birds.
Monaul are, like the family generally, mixed feeders, but they specialize on underground food—roots and grubs—and hoe these up with their powerful bills: they rarely scratch like the pheasants and fowls, being able to do the work of unearthing food with the bill alone as a rule. In the wild state they do not care for corn, but will eat it in captivity, especially wheat; but anyone keeping them should always supply chopped roots as well.
They are not very sociable, and old males are often found alone; their spurs are short, and one does not hear about their fighting in a wild state, though in captivity a strong male will hunt a weaker one to death, and I have known a vicious youngster to completely scalp a hen. But, on the whole, they are gentle, quiet birds compared with the excitable pheasants. The display of the cock is curious—he begins by bending down his head and expanding the turquoise eye-patch; then he sets out his wings without fully expanding them, and raises and spreads his tail, thus showing all his top-colour at once. When thus at full show he parades with mincing gait round the hen, now and then hopping in a way strangely out of place for so heavy and dignified a bird. He often has but one mate, but in localities where the species is common several may fall to his lot. In fact, Wilson, the "Mountaineer" so well known in Indian sporting literature for his unrivalled accounts of our Indian hill game-birds, found that by rigidly preserving hens he could market male skins of this species and the western tragopan by hundreds yearly without decreasing the stock, so that polygamy is quite a workable arrangement for the species, although Mr. St. Quintin, who has bred it in confinement in England, finds that the cock looks after and broods the chicks as well as the hen. But this may have been due to isolation ; the general impression in India is that the hen only tends the brood.
Owing to the value of its jewelled plumage the bird has been liable to be much poached by natives, who capture it with nooses and dead-falls, all of which devices ought to be strictly forbidden, as they are fatal to hens as well as cocks. To the legitimate exploitation of the males no reasonable person should object, but these game-birds need careful protection, and if the natives' poaching propensities could be directed to the destruction of the numerous vermin of India a great point would be gained. In this connection it should be mentioned that the hawk-eagle is an inveterate foe of this bird and of tragopans, while no doubt the marten accounts for a good many.
Monauls breed in late spring, the hen making a " scrape " under a root or rock, and laying seldom more than five eggs; they can be first found in May, and may easily be mistaken for those of a turkey, but are slightly larger than the eggs laid by Indian turkeys at any rate.
The native name Munal, with the feminine Munali, is especially used in the Central Himalayas ; in Kulu the male is distinguished as Nil and the female as Karari; in Kashmir the sex- appellations are Lont for the cock and Hami for the hen ; Ratnal and Ratkap are used in the North-west Himalayas, while the Lepchas and Bhutias call the bird Fo-dong and Cham-dong respectively, and Dafia is the name in Nepal, recalling the term Datiya in Kumaun and Garhwal.
There is a certain tendency to variation in the plumage of the male monaul, and in some cases this has led to some unsatisfactory species being named ; a form with blue instead of copper-red on the neck has been called Lophophorus mantoui, and in several books a variety is called the Bronze-backed Monaul, and credited with being the true Lophophorus impeyanus, whereas it always used to be supposed that it was the typical form which was named after Impey. This variety, for I personally cannot swallow it as a species, and natives say it is only a casual variation, has only been found in Chamba, where the common form is well known. It is distinguished from this bird by having much more metallic gloss on the plumage, there being no white patch on the back, but purple all the way down, while the green of the throat spreads all over the under-parts, which are intense velvet-black in the typical bird. As no hens ever turn up, and as birds only differing in colour invariably interbreed and do not themselves recognize a difference of species, I really think naturalists have been too much in a hurry in giving specific rank to this freak; for it. so happens that the pheasant family are particularly apt to produce well-marked and natural-looking colour-variations, of which the black-winged peacock, also once ranked as a species, is a striking example.
Since writing the above, I find that Mr. C. W. Beebe has published (Zoologica, vol. i, p. 272) his conviction that the Chamba monaul is "unquestionably a mutation, sport, or abnormal variation."