for National Geographic News
When John Rowden asks local villagers on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo what they know about the Bulwer's pheasant, the first thing most people say is that the bird is delicious.
That is not an answer Rowden savors. The ornithologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society is also a curator of animals at the Central Park Zoo. Since 1999 Rowden has traveled to Borneo several times a year to learn as much as he can about the elusive pheasant.
Also called wattled pheasants, Bulwer's pheasants (Lophura bulweri) are chicken-size birds. Males have bushy white tails and folds of brilliant blue skin on their faces. Females have folds of brown skin. The pheasants are found in the wild only on Borneo and are thought to number no more than a few thousand.
Very few of the pheasants kept in zoos around the world will breed. Rowden travels to Borneo, in part, to learn how to improve the chemistry among captive pheasants.
He believes a new generation of captive pheasants would help raise awareness of the birds and the conservation crisis they face in their native habitat.
Not only are the birds a delicacy for local villagers in Borneo, but the pheasants are threatened by the island's rapid loss of tropical rain forests.
A study published last year in the journal Science found that lowland forest cover in protected areas of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan decreased by more than 56 percent between 1985 and 2001.
Borneo is the world's third largest island and is shared by the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Rowden said the logging in Malaysian Borneo is less damaging than in Indonesia only because the boundaries of protected areas are respected.
The ornithologist hopes to learn how Bulwer's pheasants breed in the wild before the birds and their habitat disappear. To that end, Rowden spends a lot of time asking villagers about their insights into the bird's natural history.
For example, the bird expert said that after being told how good the pheasants taste, villages often say, "If you want to find the birds, look for [bearded] pigs."
The bearded pig (Sus barbatus) is distinguished by its elongated head, narrow body, and abundant chin whiskers. It can grow as long as 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) and weigh upward of 330 pounds (150 kilograms).
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