Pittidaepittas

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Diversity

Pittas belong to the order Passeriformes and family Pittidae. All 30 species of pitta are grouped into one genus. Their closest relatives are broadbills (Eurylaimidae) and asities (Philepittidae). Pittas are small to medium sized birds (15 to 29 cm long) and can be quite colorful; bright blues, greens, reds and yellows are commonly seen. The bright coloration is usually on the birds’ underparts or is hidden when their wings are folded. This makes the birds more difficult for predators to spot. Males and females look alike in some species and are dimorphic in others. Pittas are stout birds with long legs, short tails and strong bills.

Pittas are monogamous and both males and females take part in raising young. They primarily eat invertebrates (annelid worms and arthropods) that they find by digging through leaf litter on the forest floor. They are found in the Ethiopian, Oriental, and Australian regions and prefer tropical forest habitats. Because their preferred habitat is disappearing rapidly as a result of human disturbance, many species of pitta are of conservation concern. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Dickinson, 2003; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Geographic Range

Pittas are found only in the Old World. The largest diversity of pittas is found in southeast Asia. However, they can be found in the Australian, Ethiopian and Oriental regions. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003)

Habitat

Pittas are found in tropical rainforest, scrub jungle, bamboo, mangroves, deciduous and evergreen forest and semi-cultivated areas. They are found in coastal areas at sea level to elevations of 2500 m. They are usually found near flowing water and only in areas where the groundcover is leaf litter. While migrating they are often attracted to lights and may come to gardens and enter buildings. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal

Physical Description

Pittas are small to medium sized birds (15 to 29 cm long, 42 to 210 g) with long legs, short tails and strong, downcurved bills. Their large eyes help them to see in their dark interior forest habitat. There is a lot of variation in leg and foot color. Pittas tend to have colorful plumage, a trait that is unique for understory bids. Some have bright, colorful stripes with black face masks on the head and barring on the breast. Their colors may be bright reds, blues, greens and yellows. The brighter colors are usually on the bird’s underparts. The upperparts of the birds tend to be duller, making them more difficult for predators to spot. Many species have bright colors on their rump, wings and upper tail coverts that can be covered by their wings while they are on the ground foraging. Most species also have a white wing-patch that can usually be seen only when they are flying. A few species have long feathers on their nape that can be raised to resemble horns.

Some pittas are sexually monomorphic and others are dimorphic. In dimorphic species, females are duller and more cryptic than males. Juveniles are duller than adults and are generally brownish with streaking and spotting. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • ornamentation

Reproduction

Pittas are monogamous. Males perform many different courtship displays which may include ruffling feathers, raising their “horns” and bowing. African pittas have a more dramatic display where they stand on a branch and jump up 25 to 45 cm and then flap back down to the perch. They call while displaying and fluff their red breast feathers. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Breeding season usually begins with the rainy season. This is usually the time when food is in high abundance and there is dense vegetation to hide the nest and young. Some species breed in all but the wettest months. Both the male and female take part in nest building, which takes from two to eight days. Nests are usually on the ground or one to two meters high. They are built in stumps, fallen trees, banks, cliffs, roots or vegetation. The nests are globular and usually domed, and have a side entrance. They are made of twigs, roots and leaves and are covered in moss and leaves. The moss and leaf covering helps to camouflage the nest. Some species build a platform of mammal dung at the entrance to the nest.

Clutch size is usually three to five (range is two to seven). Eggs are ovoid, glossy or buff white and have reddish or purplish spots. Both males and females incubate the eggs, which hatch in 14 to 18 days. In some species hatching is synchronous. In others it is asynchronous and occurs over a couple of days. Adults eat the eggshells after the chicks hatch (the eggshells are a good source of calcium). The altricial young are brooded and fed by both the male and female. Earthworms are the food most frequently given to chicks. Nestlings fledge in 15 to 17 days and continue to be fed by the adults for another ten days. Pittas will often chase off their fledglings in order to have a second clutch. Though they are well camouflaged, many nests are lost to predators. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Both males and females incubate the eggs, and the chicks hatch in 14 to 18 days. Adults eat the eggshells (which are a good source of calcium) after the chicks hatch. The altricial young are brooded and fed by both the male and female. Earthworms are the food most frequently given to chicks. Both parents also remove fecal sacks from the nest. Nestlings fledge in 15 to 17 days and continue to be fed by the adults for another ten days. Pittas will often chase off their fledglings in order to have a second clutch. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Lifespan/Longevity

The oldest recorded pitta in the wild is a blue-winged pitta (Pitta moluccensis) that was recaptured 5.5 years after being banded. Giant pittas (Pitta caerulea) in a zoo lived for more than 12 years. (Erritzoe, 2003)

Behavior

Most pittas are sedentary. However, some are migratory. African pittas migrate as far as 2000 km. They tend to be solitary, but may form groups during migration. They migrate at night and are often found inside buildings along their migration routes because they are attracted to light. Some species make local nomadic movements. Pittas have high site-fidelity and often return to the same area to breed year to year.

Pittas are diurnal, but often roost during the hottest part of the day. They are territorial and defend their territories using song and displays. Displays often involve a “bowing display” accompanied by “growl-like” calls. They will also raise their crown feathers. If necessary they will chase and attack intruders. Pittas bathe and preen frequently. They also sunbathe and have been observed anting. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Communication and Perception

Pittas sing most frequently at dawn and dusk. Their calls are short whistles and trills. They often call from treetops, and in some species both the male and female will call. They often call in choruses with their neighbors and will give alarm calls in the presence of a predator. Pittas also communicate with displays. They have both threat displays that they use to defend territories and courtship displays that they use to attract mates. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003)

Food Habits

Pittas primarily eat invertebrates, although they occasionally eat small vertebrates and vegetable matter. They seem to eat more annelid worms and insects than any other prey, and chicks are fed mostly earthworms. Pittas also eat: insects (including termites, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, bugs and moths), snails, spiders, centipedes, crabs, lizards, snakes, frogs, fruit and seeds. They forage by scratching through the leaves and debris on the forest floor, using their feet or overturning it with their beak. They may also locate some prey by smell and by sound. When eating snails, they use rocks as “anvils” to break open the shells. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Erritzoe, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

Predation

Even though pittas are often very brightly colored, the color is usually located either on their undersides or on areas that can be covered when the wings are folded. Females and juveniles also tend to be more cryptic than males. Pitta nests are well camouflaged as a defense against predators, although many nests are still lost due to depredation. Snakes (suborder Serpentes) are common nest predators. Pittas give alarm calls and flash the white patch on their wing to startle predators. Nighttime migration may protect pittas from predation by diurnal raptors (order Falconiformes). Introduced predators, such as feral cats (Felis silvestris) also pose a threat to pittas. (Erritzoe, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Pittas have an impact on populations of the prey they eat. They may also have an affect on decomposition rates as they sift through and turn over the leaf litter and debris on the forest floor in search of prey.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pittas are actively hunted by people in the regions they inhabit. They are caught both for food and for the pet-trade. Pittas are also important for ecotourism as they are highly sought after by bird watchers. (Kemp and Bruce, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of pittas on humans.

Conservation Status

Pittas are threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation, hunting for food and the pet-trade, introduced species and uncontrolled fire. As human populations increase throughout their range, pittas are likely to lose more habitat to slash and burn agriculture. Many populations of pittas are declining and will likely continue to do so unless their declines prompt the establishment of more national parks and wildlife preserves. Currently one species (Gurney’s pitta (Pitta gurneyi) is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, eight species are listed as vulnerable, and four as near threatened. Several species of pitta are also listed under CITES Appendices I and II. ("UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species", 2003; Erritzoe, 2003; IUCN, 2003; Kemp and Bruce, 2003; Lambert and Woodcock, 1996)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

biodegradation

helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

2003. "UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species" (On-line). Accessed March 19, 2004 at http://www.cites.org/eng/resources/species.html.

Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion: Buteo Books.

Dickinson, E. 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd edition. London: Christopher Helm.

Erritzoe, J. 2003. Family Pittidae (Pittas). Pp. 106-160 in J del Hoyo, A Elliott, D Christie, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 8. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

IUCN, 2003. "2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed March 19, 2004 at http://www.redlist.org/.

Kemp, A., M. Bruce. 2003. Pittas. Pp. 418-420 in C Perrins, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Lambert, F., M. Woodcock. 1996. Pittas, Broadbills and Asities. Sussex: Pica Press.

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, A study in Molecular Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.