by Jagath Gunawardana
The Indian Pitta, a migrant that comes to Sri Lanka later in the season every year, has arrived in the country for the 2012-2013 migratory season, and can be seen in home gardens, shrub lands and forests.
It is a well-known species in Sri Lanka with several stories and myths surrounding it. In addition, it is a very colourful bird, which has earned it the name, ‘Nine-coloured Pitta.’ This is yet another species that uses the Western Migratory Route and enters Sri Lanka from the Western coast.
The Indian Pitta is said to arrive in Sri Lanka during September and October, but my observations over the years show that it is seen usually by the middle of October every year. Upon arrival, it spreads out throughout the low country, in both Wet and Dry Zones, and in the hills up to a height of about 1,500 metres (5500 feet). The bird is more commonly seen in the low country Wet Zone and the lower hills.
It is a weak flier and is also not a strong bird in general. Therefore, it causes some individuals to arrive in a very exhausted condition and can fall prey to predators such as crows and domestic cats and may even die from fatigue. This bird is attracted by bright, strong lights at night and some crash into windowpanes and get hurt or even die of the shock and injuries. Such mishaps are increasing due to more and more buildings coming up along the coastline of the Colombo and Gampaha Districts. This bird is encountered in many busy towns in the Western Province, including Colombo and suburbs, during its inward migration, as the Southern end of the Western Migratory Route extends up to Panadura.
The Indian Pitta is a solitary bird with each individual maintaining a well-defined territory during its stay in Sri Lanka and is very aggressive in maintaining and defending the territory against other pittas. It is of a skulking and retiring nature, preferring secluded and shady places beneath trees and shrubs, with a distinct preference to be under the thickets formed by coffee shrubs. It is a terrestrial bird that hops along the ground at a slow, leisurely pace most of the time.
Its food consists of a wide variety of small creatures such as insects, spiders, small worms, slugs and even small snails, and it readily feeds on vegetable matter such as seeds and fallen fruits. It uses sideways strokes of the beak to dig the soil and expose prey. This bird is fond of thrown away rice and grated coconut residue (pol-kudu in Sinhala) and fruits like dates. It can lose much of the fear of humans and become quite tame when food is regularly provided. However, it has to be emphasized that it is not good to attract them with food as this practice may lead to birds falling prey to prowling cats, and therefore is best avoided in places where cats are around.
The Indian Pitta’s call is a two-part whistle, a ‘keee-kee’ note uttered mostly in the mornings before the commencement of feeding and in the evening after going into the roost. Although it spends the day on the ground, it always roosts on a branch, about 1 to 2 metres from the ground or even higher. It is known as the ‘six-o-clock bird’ due to its habit of calling in the mornings and evenings and is known in Tamil as uru mavi kuruvi for the same reason. However, the call time may vary and is not as punctual as some claim. My observations have shown that it utters the morning call usually around 6 a.m., but the evening call is made between half-past 6 and 7 p.m. A bird may keep on calling continuously for a few minutes during the day, but it is a rare occurrence. It also has an alarm call, which consists of a long drawn and harsh ‘krrr-krrr.’ This alarm call is usually made when there is an intruder such as a prowling cat is around.
The Indian Pitta leaves Sri Lanka during April and early May and becomes more vociferous towards the end of the stay. It also looks more colourful at this time due to it undergoing a moult at the end of the stay, donning a set of new feathers for the departure. This attracts the attention of the people to it and it has led to some to assume that the bird arrives in the country during the New Year period, whereas in reality it is readying itself to leave.
Another belief amongst the paddy farmers in the Wet Zone is that one must put seed paddy for soaking before the Indian Pitta makes the call in the morning. The logic is that it is necessary to soak the seed paddy for at least 24 hours before sowing for optimal results and that this belief, even if there is no other truth behind it, will at least ensure that the seed paddy is soaked for the necessary period of time before being sowed in the morning.
The Indian Pitta does not breed in Sri Lanka and departs to India to breed. The clearing of shrubs in many urban areas has caused a decline in finding suitable habitats and this has in turn caused a decline in the numbers of this species in such areas. It is also seen that the number of domestic cats in many human habitations, especially in the towns, is killing and feeding on a large number of them during the stay. In many places, especially home gardens, it is being attacked and chased away by the Red-vented Bulbul, which has shown an increase in many urban as well as rural areas, and is also causing the Indian Pitta to abandon some places where there is a high degree of threat from the attacks.
• Pittas belong to the family Pittidae that has 32 species distributed throughout Asia, Africa and Australia.
• They are small and medium-sized birds with large heads, stout medium-length beaks, round wings, very short tails and long and strong legs.
• All pittas have bright, colourful plumages.
• This family has only one species, the Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), recorded from Sri Lanka.
• It is also known as the Blue-winged Pitta, the Bengal Pitta and the Painted Thrush, the last being a misnomer as it is not a thrush.
•In Sinhala, it is known as Avichchiya. (In Tamil it is kown as Aaru manikkuruvi – DBSJ)
• The Indian Pitta is about 19 cm (8 inches) long or about the size of a Red-vented Bulbul with a squat, rotund build.
• The very short and stubby tail is not clearly seen always as it is sometimes covered by the wings.
• The crown is yellow-brown (buff) in colour with a thin black streak in the middle. The supercilium (eye-brow) is white and is bordered by the broad black eye stripe. Throat is white.
• The wings and back are a dark bluish-green and there is a bright cobalt blue patch in the wing coverts. The black primary feathers have a large white patch in the middle that is seen only when the wings are spread.
• The breast and belly are orange-yellow or brownish-yellow. The lower belly and vent are scarlet red.
• The bright cerulean blue tail has a black edge.
• The orange or brownish-orange beak has a black tip.
• Eyes are dark brown.
• Legs and feet are pink and the nails are brown.
• Males and females are similar in appearance courtesy: Ceylon Today