What’s In a Name: Argus Pheasant

By Jeff Walters

In an era when many outstanding brown-toned irises were introduced, Argus Pheasant was the one that went all the way for its hybridizer, Fred DeForest. Earning an HM in 1948, the year of its introduction, Argus Pheasant picked up an AM in 1950 on its way to capturing the Dykes Medal in 1952.

argus pheasant
Argus Pheasant as it appears in the garden of AV Moran.

Prior to joining the select group of those whose iris creations have received the supreme accolade, Fred DeForest led a varied and often adventurous life, many of whose chapters were reflected in the names he chose for his introductions. At the age of 20 Fred was serving in the U.S. Cavalry along the Mexican border during the campaign against Pancho Villa in 1916. A little while later he was operating a trading post in Navajo country. He spent some time in Alaska when it truly was the “last frontier” before landing in Novato, California in the early 1920s as manager of a large poultry farm, or “chicken ranch” as it was referred to in those days without arriè repensée. It was while he was located in the San Francisco Bay area that Fred became acquainted with the noted irisarians then living nearby, such as Professor Sydney B. Mitchell and Carl Salbach in Berkeley. It was they who opened the door of the iris world to young Fred, and figuratively speaking he walked right in, made himself at home, and never left. By the mid-1920s Fred had relocated to Oregon, where he began a distinguished career as an iris hybridizer that spanned some 30 years.

Following Argus Pheasant, Fred DeForest won a second Dykes Medal with First Violet in 1956. Fred and Caroline DeForest’s “Irisnoll Garden” in Canby was one of the tour gardens for the 1960 AIS Portland Convention. Visitors were deeply impressed by the recent DeForest introductions and selected seedlings they viewed on that tour. An insight into Fred’s character is provided by the observations on his nonchalant modesty in accepting the Franklin Cook Memorial Cup for his 1956 introduction Violet Hills at the Awards Banquet that year.

As recorded by Peggy Burke Grey, then National Robins Editor, in her write-up of the Portland Convention that appeared in the July, 1960 AIS Bulletin: “Fred has a sly sense of humor and affects a sort of jovial cracker-barrel approach to the acclaim he receives.

argus pheasant
Argus Pheasant as it appears in the garden of Dave Silverberg, Mollala OR.

I get the impression he’s not much for fuss and feathers.” The iris world was stunned and saddened when Fred DeForest died unexpectedly less than three months afterwards. Did he take the secret of his reason for the name he chose for his big, beautiful brown iris with him?

Argus Pheasant is described in the 1953 Syllmar Gardens catalog as having “large, gorgeous blooms of golden argus brown with highlights of a bright coppery sheen and a beard to match.” The 1957 Cooley’s catalog speaks of it as “smooth soft brown…deeper in tone and more metallic than Pretty Quadroon…with orange-brown beards.” As with many irises of blended tones, a forthright description is elusive. Nevertheless, it seems logical to seek the inspiration for its name in its color.

Argus Pheasant is the namesake of one particular species among many that form the extended avian tribe known as pheasants — a group of medium to large ground-dwelling birds that are mostly native to Asia. Besides the familiar Ring-necked Pheasant, the tribe includes such varied kindred as the peacock, the jungle fowl (ancestor of the domestic chicken), the iridescent Tragopans, and the almost impossibly gorgeous Golden and Lady Amherst Pheasants. The Argus Pheasant (Argmiana argus) is one of the largest of its kind, the adult male stretching an impressive six-and-a-half feet from the point of his beak to the tip of his long tail. For comparative purposes, the male Argus Pheasant is about half the bulk of the peacock with a tail nearly two-thirds as long as the latter’s fabled train.

The native home of the Argus Pheasant is the Malay Peninsula and the large East Indian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The favored habitat of the Argus is the old growth forests from sea level up to an altitude of 4000 feet. They prefer the drier and more rocky country and avoid the coastal swamps. The birds are very shy and solitary, and though large and vocal, they are seldom seen.The female seeks out the male when she is ready to breed, but the sexes keep apart the rest of the time. The cock Argus clears a circular area four to five yards in diameter on which to perform his nuptial displays, and sticks close toit except when molting his feathers.

great argus pheasant
The Great Argus Pheasant. Photo © & courtesy of Barry Koffler and FeatherSite.com

He makes his presence known by uttering a loud and penetrating “KWEE-OW!” repeatedly. When a hen responds to this love call, he begins his display.The plumage of both sexes of the Argus Pheasant is a warm chestnut brown covered all over with fine dots and lines, some darker and others lighter than the background color. When the cock goes into his display, however, his usual sober appearance in transformed into one of the most astonishing spectacles in the avian world. He spreads his wings, uncovering the usually invisible secondary flight feathers, which are exceptionally long and broad, each one bearing along its entire length from 20 to 23 large, circular eyespots. Drawing his head back so it is hidden behind the wings, which are outspread into an almost perfect circle of hundreds of shimmering eyespots, the cock waggles his upright, four-foot-long main tailfeathers aloft. From time to time as he continues this display, he pokes his naked, bright blue-skinned head between his wing feathers to see what sort of impression he is making on his ladylove.

The Argus Pheasant has long been famous in East Asia, but live birds only reached the West in 1872, when a few were sent to the London zoo. Since then, they have been bred in captivity by zoos and bird fanciers around the world. The Argus Pheasant adapts well to such conditions,and is not difficult to keep, other than requiring protection from low temperatures. It is still reasonably abundant in its native habitat, though there is a potentially serious threat posed by the extensive logging operations taking place there.

Thus, Argus Pheasant, the iris, was named for Argus Pheasant, the bird, because of the rich brown color both of them share. But, that only begs the question of how the bird got its name, which is not as obvious a descriptive term as those applied to the Ring-necked or Golden Pheasants, for example. To answer that question we must enter the fantastic and fascinating world of Greek mythology.

The Greeks had many gods who dwelt on Olympus, but Zeus was king of the Olympians and Hera was his queen. At one time there was a lovely young priestess named Io, who served in the temple of Hera. Zeus, who had a roving eye, took a liking to her, and when Hera’s suspicions became aroused, he quickly transformed Io into a white heifer and presented her to his jealous wife as a gift. Hera, who was wise to the ways of her consort and was well aware that he was waiting for a chance to turn Io back into a woman, entrusted the white heifer to Argus, the Giant, for safe-keeping. This was a shrewd move on her part, since Argus was equipped with a hundred eyes distributed all over his body, closing no more than half of them even when he slept. Argus led the heifer Io to a secluded olive grove, tied her to one of the trees, and settled down to keep an eye (or fifty of them) on her.

Mercury and Argus
Mercury and Argus, 1635-38, Oil on panel, Pieter Pauwel Rubens.

Zeus, however, was not willing to give up the game, so he sent his clever son Hermes to get Io back for him. Hermes, realizing he could not slip past the ever watchful Argus, played soothing tunes on his flute while keeping out of sight. As soon as Argus was lulled into a deep slumber and closed his hundredth eye, Hermes rolled a huge boulder down on him, crushing the Giant to death, and made off with Io. However, Hera, who always had the last word in these affairs, sent a gadfly to torment Io and chase her all over the world to keep her away from Zeus. Not satisfied with this revenge, she also plucked out Argus’ eyes and placed them on the peacock’s tail, keeping this bird constantly at her side as a reminder to all of her husband’s perfidious conduct.

So there you have it — the man, the bird, the iris, and the myth! How did Fred DeForest come to name his bright brown iris for a bird that conceals itself in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Could it be that his days at the chicken ranch in Novato had sparked an enduring interest in the spectacular and exotic cousins of the humble domestic fowl?


Delacour, Jean. Pheasants of the World. Chas. Scribner’s Sons, NY (1951).
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Moyer Bell Ltd., Mt. Kisco, NY (1960).
Grey, Peg. “Irisarians Invade Realm of Rosaria”. AIS Bulletin 158:43-9 (1960).
Guerand, Felix. Greek Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London (1963).
deHoyo, Josep, Ed. Handbook of Birds of the World, Vol. 2. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona (1994).
McCaughey, Helen. “The Fred DeForest Garden”. AIS Bulletin 158:55-6 (1960).
Schreiner, Robert. “Fred DeForest (1896-1960)”. AIS Bulletin 159:44-5 (1960).
Tegetmeicr, William. Pheasants. Field Press, London, (n.d.).

Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol. 14 Issue 1, Spring 2001