CHAPTER XXXIII. HUNTING PEACOCKS ON THE SALWEEN RIVER

From Ma-li-pa we traveled almost due north to the Salween River. The country through which we passed was a succession of dry treeless hills, brown and barren and devoid of animal life. On the evening of the third day we reached the Salween at a ferry a few miles from the village of Changlung where the river begins its great bend to the eastward and sweeps across the border from China into Burma.

The stream has cut a tremendous gorge for itself through the mountains and the sides are so precipitous that the trail doubles back upon itself a dozen times before it reaches the river 3,500 feet below. The upper half of the gorge is bare or thinly patched with trees, but in the lower part the grass is long and rank and a thin dry jungle straggles along the water's edge. The Salween at this point is about two hundred yards wide, but narrows to half that distance below the ferry and flows in a series of rapids between rocky shores.

The valley is devoid of human life except for three boatmen who tend the ferry, but the deserted rice fields along a narrow shelf showed evidence of former cultivation. On the slopes far up the side of the canon is a Miao village, a tribe which we had not seen before. Probably the valley is too unhealthy for any natives to live close to the water's edge and, even at the time of our visit in early March, the heated air was laden with malaria.

The ferrymen were stupid fellows, half drugged with opium, and assured us that there were no mammals near the river. They admitted that they sometimes heard peacocks and, while our tents were being pitched on a steep sand bank beneath a giant tree, the weird catlike call of a peacock echoed up the valley. It was answered by another farther down the river, and the report of my gun when I fired at a bat brought forth a wild "pe-haun," "pe-haun," "pe-haun" from half a dozen places.

The ferry was a raft built of long bamboo poles lashed together with vines and creepers. It floated just above the surface and was half submerged when loaded. The natives used a most extraordinary contrivance in place of oars. It consisted of a piece of tightly woven bamboo matting three feet long and two feet wide at right angles to which was fastened a six-foot handle. With these the men nonchalantly raked the water toward them from the bow and stern when they had poled the raft well into the current. The invested capital was not extensive, for when the ferry or "propellers" needed repairs a few hours' work in the jungle sufficed to build an entirely new outfit.

All of the peacocks were on the opposite side of the river from our camp where the jungle was thickest. On the first morning my wife and I floated down the river on the raft for half a mile and landed to stalk a peacock which had called frequently from a rocky point near the water's edge. We picked our way through the jungle with the utmost caution but the wary old cock either saw or heard us before we were within range, and I caught just a glimpse of a brilliant green neck as he disappeared into the bushes. A second bird called on a point a half mile farther on, but it refused to come into the open and as we started to stalk it in the jungle we heard a patter of feet among the dry leaves followed by a roar of wings, and saw the bird sail over the tree tops and alight on the summit of a bush-clad hill.

This was the only peacock which we were ever able to flush when it had already gained cover. Usually the birds depend entirely upon their ability to hide or run through the bushes. After several attempts we learned that it was impossible to stalk the peacocks successfully. The jungle was so crisp and parched that the dry leaves crackled at every step and even small birds made a loud noise while scratching on the ground.

The only way to get the peacocks was to watch for them at the river when they came to drink in the early morning and evening. Between two rocky points where we had first seen the birds there was a long curved beach of fine white sand. One morning Heller waited on the point nearest camp while my wife and I posted ourselves under a bush farther down the river. We had been sitting quietly for half an hour when we heard a scratching in the jungle. Thinking it was a peacock feeding we turned our backs to the water and sat motionless peering beneath the bushes. Meanwhile, Heller witnessed an interesting little drama enacted behind us.

An old male peacock with a splendid train stole around the point close to the water, jumped to a high stone within thirty yards of us and stood for a full minute craning its beautiful green neck to get a better view as we kneeled in front of him totally unconscious of his presence. After he had satisfied his curiosity he hopped off the observation pinnacle and, with his body flattened close to the ground, slipped quietly away. It was an excellent example of the stalker being stalked and had Heller not witnessed the scene we should never have known how the clever old bird had fooled us.

The following morning we got a peahen at the same place. Heller had concealed himself in the bushes on one side of the point while I watched the other. Shortly after daylight an old female sailed out of the jungle on set wings and alighted at the water's edge. She saw Heller almost instantly, although he was completely covered by the vines, and started to fly, but he dropped her with a broken wing. Recovering herself, she darted around the rocky point only to meet a charge of B.B.'s from my gun. She was a beautiful bird with a delicate crown of slender feathers, a yellow and blue face patch and a green neck and back, but her plumes were short and inconspicuous when compared with those of the male.

Probably these birds had never before been hunted but they were exceedingly shy and difficult to kill. Although they called more or less during the entire day and we could locate them exactly, they were so far back in the jungle that the crackling of the dry leaves made a stalk impossible. We tried to drive them but were unsuccessful, for the birds would never flush unless they happened to be in the open and cut off from cover. Apparently realizing that their brilliant plumage made them conspicuous objects, the birds relied entirely upon an actual screen of bushes and their wonderful sight and hearing to protect themselves from enemies.

They usually came to the river to drink very early in the morning and just before dusk in the afternoon, but on cloudy days they might appear at almost any hour. If undisturbed they would remain near the water's edge for a considerable time or strut about the sand beach just at the edge of the jungle. At the sound of a gun or any other loud sharp noise the peacocks would answer with their mournful catlike wail, exactly as the domesticated birds will do.

The Chinese believe that the flesh of the peafowl is poison and our servants were horrified when they learned that we intended to eat it. They fully expected that we would not survive the night and, even when they saw we had experienced no ill effects, they could not be persuaded to touch any of it themselves. An old peacock is too tough to eat, but the younger birds are excellent and when stuffed with chestnuts and roasted they are almost the equal of turkey.

The species which we killed on the Salween River is the green peafowl (Pavo munticus) which inhabits Burma, Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula. Its neck is green, instead of purple, as is that of the common Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus), and it is said that it is the most beautiful bird of the world.

The long ocellated tail coverts called the "train" are dropped about August and the birds assume more simple barred plumes, but the molt is very irregular; usually the full plumage is resumed in March or even earlier. The train is, of course, an ornament to attract the female and, when a cock is strutting about with spread plumes, he sometimes makes a most peculiar rustling sound by vibrating the long feathers.

The eight or ten eggs are laid on the bare ground under a bush in the dense jungle, are dull brownish white and nearly three inches long. The chicks are sometimes domesticated, but even when born in captivity, it is said they are difficult to tame and soon wander away. The birds are omnivorous, feeding on insects, grubs, reptiles, flower buds, young shoots, and grain.

The common peafowl (Pavo cristatus) is a native of India, Ceylon, and Assam. It is held sacred by some religious castes and we saw dozens of the birds wandering about the grounds of the temples in Benares, Agra, and Delhi. Peafowl are said to be rather disagreeable pets because they often attack infirm persons and children and kill young poultry.

In some parts of Ceylon and India the birds are so abundant and easily killed that they do not furnish even passable sport, but in other places they are as wild and difficult to shoot as we found them to be on the Salween River. In India it is a universal belief among sportsmen that wherever peafowls are common, there tiger will be found.

A very beautiful variety which seems to have arisen abruptly in domestication is the so-called "japanned" or black-shouldered peacock named Pavo nigripennis by Mr. Sclater. In some respects it is intermediate between P. munticus and P. cristatus and apparently "breeds true" but never has been found in a wild state. Albino specimens are by no means unusual and are a feature of many zooelogical gardens.

Peacocks have been under domestication for many centuries and are mentioned in the Bible as having been imported into Palestine by Solomon; although the bird is referred to in mythology, the Greeks probably had but little knowledge of it until after the conquests of Alexander.

In the thick jungle only a few hundred yards from our camp on the Salween River I put up a silver pheasant (Euplocamus nycthemerus ), one of the earliest known and most beautiful species of the family Phasianidae. Its white mantle, delicately vermiculated with black, extends like a wedding veil over the head, back and tail, in striking contrast to the blue-black underparts, red cheek patches, and red legs.

This bird was formerly pictured in embroidery upon the heart and back badges of the official dresses of civil mandarins to denote the rank of the wearer, and is found only in southern and western China. It is by no means abundant in the parts of Yuen-nan which we visited and, moreover, lives in such dense jungle that it is difficult to find. The natives sometimes snare the birds and offer them for sale alive.

We also saw monkeys at our camp on the Salween River, but were not successful in killing any. They were probably the Indian baboon ( Macacus rhesus) and, for animals which had not been hunted, were most extraordinarily wild. They were in large herds and sometimes came down to the water to skip and dance along the sand and play among the rocks. The monkeys invariably appeared on the opposite side of the river from us and by the time we hunted up the boatmen and got the clumsy raft to the other shore the baboons had disappeared in the tall grass or were merrily running through the trees up the mountain-side.

The valley was too dry to be a very productive trapping ground for either small or large mammals, but the birds were interesting and we secured a good many species new to our collection. Jungle fowl were abundant and pigeons exceedingly so, but we saw no ducks along the river and only two cormorants.

Very few natives crossed at the ferry during our stay, for it is a long way from the main road and the climb out of the gorge is too formidable to be undertaken if the Salween can possibly be crossed higher up where the valley is wide and shallow. While we were camped at the river the heat was most uncomfortable during the middle of the day and was but little mitigated by the wind which blew continually. During mid-summer the valley at this point must be a veritable furnace and doubtless reeks with fever. We slept under nets at night and in the early evening, while we were watching for peacocks, the mosquitoes were very troublesome.