Following the Indian Pitta from the Himalayan foothills to IIT Madras

This beautiful creature can be difficult to spot unless one knows how it moves, feeds and where exactly it hangs out — so, here is a meet-up with the bird in its breeding and wintering grounds

The Indian Pitta’s prominent feature is ironically also something that it possesses in meagre measure. Its stubby tail is so short that in a comparison contest, Donald Duck’s three little nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie can wag theirs proudly.

Thankfully, the bird is also known and celebrated for something it possesses in abundant measure — eye-catching colour. It owns the central colours on the RGB wheel. Its upper parts have a generous coat of green. Its almost non-existent tail is painted blue. Its vent and belly have a shade of orange-red that approximates to tangelo. The buff underparts; and the black stripes on the head and around the eye that contrast with the buff and white shades, respectively, add to the riot of colours.

Bold display of colours and lack of size combine to create a ‘cherubic’ image. No exaggeration — a good number of birders would have at some time called the Indian Pitta “cute”. Its movements also contribute to this picture.

V. Shantaram, ornithologist and director of Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History at Rishi Valley, dwells on how the Indian Pitta moves in hops of one-two-three, particularly while foraging on the ground amidst a tumble of fallen leaves, looking for insects.

The bird can engage those watching it; but it is a difficult bird to sight, due to its preference for a particular type of woodland.

The disorientation

In its wintering grounds, especially Chennai, encounters with the Indian Pitta sometimes take place under gloomy circumstances.

Indian Pittas are believed to run out of steam as they complete their journey to their wintering grounds. At the beginning of the wintering season, reports of tired-looking, disoriented and ‘lost’ and sometimes injured Indian Pittas are not uncommon. Says birder Rama Neelamegan, “When exhausted, the Indian Pitta is easy target for heckling crows. Fleeing from the crows, these birds may fly into buildings. There are many cases of Indian Pittas landing in balconies.”

Susy Varughese, an IIT-M professor known for undertaking nature-conservation initiatives, says that over the years, she would have received five to six SOS calls from people who discovered an Indian Pitta that was in distress and had to be nursed back to health.

ALSO READ: How to help an Indian Pitta in distress get back on to its wings

“These calls have come from outside IIT-M. When Indian Pittas head into the city in September-October as well as when they head out of it in April-May, they seem to run into such problems. While entering the city, a combination of factors is likely at play. Exhaustion, heat trap, as it can be hot even in winter, especially the early part of it, and disorientation caused by the urban environment with its buildings. As a result, they may either crash into buildings or enter buildings looking for a cool place. Again, probably due to disorientation, while leaving the urban environment in April-May, it happens. It does not happen in-between,” Susy points out.

The range

The Indian Pitta breeds in the sub-Himalayan region, northern and central India.

Rajiv S. Kalsi is a zoology professor from Haryana who has authored a field guide about the birds found in that state, writing it with two others, Suresh C. Sharma and Janak R. Choudhary.

Having tracked a section of the the bird’s breeding range, this is what Rajiv has to say: “The Indian Pitta is seen along the Himalayan foothills, from Nahan to Panchkula and Morni Hills. We keep seeing the species up to Jim Corbett National Park (which is in Uttarakhand) and its adjoining areas that offer a good forested habitat. Outside protected areas, it is sometimes difficult to find this bird. At Kalesar National Park in Haryana, it is found in good numbers. The Hooded Pitta is also found at this Park, in small numbers of two to three breeding pairs, something we have mentioned in the journal Indian Birds. Though the Indian Pitta is found in the northern Himalayan foothills, it has also been recorded down in the plains, in Gurugram and other parts of Haryana.”

An Indian Pitta calling, at Kalesar National Park in Haryana. Photo: Rajiv S. Kalsi 

Shantaram says, “You can see Indian Pitta nests in Goa, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh. From that latitude upwards, it breeds. Long ago, Prof. Sanjeeva Raj reported sighting nesting activity by a pair of Indian Pittas in Tambaram. It must have been a freak event as the bird is not seen here during the summer months.”

The habitat

In both their breeding and wintering range, the Indian Pitta thrives in wooded habitats of a specific kind.

“The Indian Pitta is at home in broad-leaf forest, and deciduous trees that shed leaves profusely suit their feeding behaviour. They are ground-foragers that look for insects in leaf litter,” says Rajiv.

In Chennai, which is part of its wintering home, Indian Pittas have taken to the wooden habitats of IIT-Madras and Guindy National Park (GNP) in a big way.

“Besides IIT-M and GNP, they are also known to be easily and frequently sighted at Theosophical Society, Madras Christian College-Tambaram and Anna University,” says Rama.

The migration

Shantaram states that the Indian Pitta fits the description of a local migrant, as it migrates within the Indian borders.

They come to Chennai in September-October and stay till April or even early-May. In Rishi Valley, they stay almost till the end of May, towards the beginning of the South-West Monsoon.

There could be a few changes in the timeline depending on the conditions. If it is too dry they would move to some other favourable location. Otherwise, the reverse migration happens just before the beginning of the monsoon,” the ornithologist from Rishi Valley elaborates. “Though Chennai is the Indian Pitta’s winter destination, some birds would be passing through Chennai to reach wintering grounds further south.”

The call

The Indian Pitta has earned the title aarumani kuruvi (six o’ clock bird) and the question is: How closely does this observation mesh with reality?

“On waking up in the morning, they give the call. In the evening, just before they retire for the day, they give the call. It may coincide with 6 o’ clock, and is not necessarily the case all the time. Here in Rishi Valley, in March, they call only around 6:45 in the evening. In the morning, the time would vary according to the sunrise. These calls are generally around sunrise and sunset. Of course, this bird also calls at other times of the day,” says Shantaram.

Labelling a bird as a dawn-and-dusk caller can lead to the misleading conclusion that they assume a penance of silence during the other hours and maintain it carefully. Obviously, that cannot be the case, and it is not.

Rajiv who has seen the bird in its breeding habitat says the Pitta’s call can be usually heard at various hours of the day.

“Birds call more frequently while breeding. During its breeding season, the Indian Pitta’s calls can be heard from dawn to dusk,” says Rajiv.

“In its breeding grounds, you will definitely hear the Indian Pitta calling more frequently; and the bird may be having a song too,” is Shantaram’s observation.

“The ‘breeding-time singing’ is actually a bout of two-note whistles, separated however by the usual pauses,” says Rajiv.

So, the question has to be tweaked: What is unusual about the two calls, the one at sunrise and the other at sunset?

Shantaram has this to say: “They call in the morning and evening to mark their presence and territory. They want to announce to the other Pittas that they do not want them to unnecessarily come and poke around in their territory. It is to send out the signal that this place is occupied. It could be something like that.”

The Indian Pitta’s reputation as a “dawn-and-dusk town-crier” stays intact. When they try to record those flagship calls, birders are never disappointed.

Not long ago, when Subramanian Sankar, who focusses on the sounds made by birds and soundscapes, headed to the IIT Madras just to check the veracity of this claim, and the Indian Pittas around the place issued the call at the expected hour, as if to prove it.

“I landed up there one evening at 5.45 p.m., and was ready; the bird’s call came around at ‘appointed’ time,” he says.

IIT-M has Indian Pittas coming out of its ears.

Hyperbole apart, this bird is found in impressive numbers on this campus, especially at the height of the wintering season.

“Currently, there are many of them on the campus,” says Susy. “Now, the call is heard at 5.45 a.m., and again at 6 p.m.. The call is heard exactly during those times. During the daytime, you do not hear them much, unless it is in the forest area.”

The sighting

The Indian Pitta is one of those birds that are heard before they are seen. “The pitta’s call is one definitive way of knowing if the bird is around,” says Shantaram.

An Indian Pitta at Kalesar National Park. The bird species forages for food largely on the ground, where they look for insects in leaf litter. Photo: Rajiv S. Kalsi  

Its call is actually a two-note whistle, as Rajiv puts it, that is repeated after a noticeable gap, and it is hard to miss.

“After hearing the call, we would go looking for it.” — Rama gives the birder’s perspective.

”The Indian Pitta is the size of a Mynah,” says Shantaram. Its stubby tail probably makes it looks smaller. The bird is said to derive its name from the Telugu word for a small bird pitta.

“Normally, the Indian Pitta feeds on the ground in the leaf litter and under the bush, and so it is not easily visible. Even with its colours, the bird is hard to sight unless it moves. If it stays still, you may never notice it.

One other way of knowing its presence is to go to its potential habitat and stand quietly, and you will hear its typical movement. It hops on the ground — two to three hops and it stops. This works only in the drier season, when the leaves are dry and the rustle of the leaves will give away the bird as it makes its hopping movement. It requires a lot of experience, quite a degree of familiarity with the bird to notice the bird in this manner,” expounds Shantaram.

Based on her field experience with the Indian Pitta, Rama believes that the usually elusive Indian Pitta can sometimes surprise you with its presence.

This is how she puts it: “You can find it only by the movement on the ground. Suddenly, it would appear before you, and you would not even be prepared for it. I have seen that happening to me a couple of times.”

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