Photo: © Shutterstock.com/sbw18. Wild hooded pittas enjoy a diet of invertebrates, their larvae and small lizards. Captive birds can be offered locusts, crickets, mealworms and waxmoths
In a beauty contest among bird families in the Old World Tropics, the dazzling pittas would do extremely well… if they actually showed themselves to the judges, that is! Despite their showy plumage, these are among the shyest species on earth. Yet in an aviary setting, given suitable management, they can make magical subjects. Bill Naylor reports
THE pittas were known to early ornithologists as “jewel thrushes” or “painted thrushes”. Thrush-like in their behaviour, they frequent the forest floor, foraging among the leaf litter and hopping away when disturbed. Telescopes tend to get steamed up in the Tropics, but it’s still hard to fathom why pittas were first classified as crows!
A revision then lumped them together with the regular thrushes in the genus Turdus, before they were placed in a genus of their own: Pitta. Since then, two more genera have been added to the family: Erythropitta and Hydrornis. Just over 10 years ago, a study found that broadbills are pittas’ closest relatives.
Haunting the forest shade
Pittas are all long-legged and many are roughly 15-18cm (6-7in) in size, apart from the giant pitta (Hydrornis caeruleus), which is a staggering 28cm (11in) in length. Most of the sexes are identical, although a handful are distinctly sexually dimorphic. Some have darkened heads and a number possess vivid-coloured areas of plumage, which surprisingly helps to break up the body shape and acts as camouflage in the dappled forest shade.
These birds are found in wet tropical forests, mainly in Africa, south-east Asia, India, Indonesia, China, Australia and New Guinea. While only a handful of species have been kept in captivity, data from wild and captive species indicates the family has similar habits and nutritional requirements.
Popular, but hard to obtain
The noisy pitta (Pitta versicolor) from Australia is a studbook species and has been bred in a number of Australian zoos. The banded, blue-winged (P. moluccensis) and hooded (P. sordida) pittas were imported into Europe and the USA infrequently up until the early 1980s and then steadily became scarce in aviculture.
The hooded was the most commonly kept and for a long time was regarded as one species. Some authorities now recognise two species: the western P. sordida has a widespread distribution in southern and south-east Asia, has multiple similar-looking subspecies and is the hooded pitta most familiar to aviculturists. The form novaeguineae, sometimes known as eastern hooded pitta and classed as a separate species, is largely restricted to New Guinea.
Those from the Philippines and Malaya, like the garnet (Erythropitta granatina) and azure-breasted (P. steerii) were rarely imported into the UK, as were the African (P. angolensis) and green-breasted (P. reichenowi). Pittas were popular softbills with foreign birdkeepers, but had a reputation for aggression and developing foot problems.
When housed on substrate, which is over wet or dry, their feet will deteriorate. Therefore, the ideal medium is dampened peat mixed with leaf mould to retain moisture. An atmosphere with high humidity is also important.
Pittas feed on invertebrates, their larvae and small lizards. Leaf litter and other ground debris is turned over with sideways movements of the beak and stabbing of the soil. As they forage, they frequently interrupt their activities to listen to bird calls, often replying with a flick of their tail. They occasionally jump up to catch flies, moths or termites.
Some species, notably the noisy, use the song thrush technique when feeding on snails and beats them on a favourite tree root or stone to break the shell. Areas often become littered with snail shells and the “anvils” become worn with regular use.
Wild pittas also feed on a small amount of fallen fruit and berries. But in captivity, they will eat a wide variety of fruit, such as sultanas, apple, peas, corn and chopped lettuce. Locusts, crickets, mealworms and waxmoths are also usually provided for captive birds, but earthworms are their favourite.
The hooded pitta was first bred in 1934 by Jean Delacour. The hen laid 10 eggs and raised four youngsters (Avicultural Magazine series IV, 1934. Vol. X11, 222-226). The next recorded success, according to Dave Cole’s First Breedings, was at Birdland (UK) in 1980. There are two detailed accounts of parent-reared hooded pittas. The first was by Foreign Bird League (FBL) member Bob Beeson and published in the FBL magazine Foreign Birds in 1999 (Vol: 65 (4)).
The second, published in the Avicultural Magazine Vol: 115, No. 1, 2009, concerned London Zoo’s 2008 breeding of the hooded pitta subspecies mulleri. Waddesdon Manor has hand-reared hooded pittas as part of its breeding programme for this species. Paignton Zoo has also bred them.
London Zoo’s pittas were housed in the Blackburn Pavilion tropical bird house. Housing 50 birds of 20 species, it provided a tropical atmosphere with waterfalls, ponds and sprinklers. Bob’s pittas shared a well-foliaged outside aviary, complete with pond and waterfall. The aviary also housed a pair of white-capped redstarts (Phoenicurus leucocephalus) and a pair of white-tailed robins (Myiomela leucura).
Nests and rearing
Pittas build a large globular football-sized nest of leaves and plant tendrils on or just off the ground. Both London Zoo’s and Bob Beeson’s pittas made nests from bamboo leaves, roots and grass. Bob supplied coconut fibre, which the birds used to line the nest. He had two unsuccessful attempts at rearing young and one success.
A nest was built for each clutch of eggs – two on the ground and one near the roof in a wire-mesh basket. In the latter, the birds collected mud to form the base and used material from a previous nest to complete the globular structure.
The nest entrance hole is large, with the head and shoulders of the sitting bird clearly seen. There are usually three or four white-to-buff coloured eggs with dark spots. Both parents commence incubation after the first egg is laid for a period of 14-15 days.
Bob was alerted to a hatching by one parent eating an eggshell. The youngsters, which vary in size, have dark quill-like feathers and resemble small hedgehogs. The rearing food Bob supplied consisted of earthworms, white mealworms, waxworms, crickets and diced ox heart. Delacour provided similar rearing food.
London Zoo offered crickets, chopped pinkie mice and dendrobaena worms. The latter is a cultivated worm used by anglers. These are less likely to have soil-borne parasites than garden earthworms. The London Zoo pittas had been fed these worms prior to nesting and, initially, these were found to be the most popular rearing food.
The problem of other birds in the tropical house stealing the pittas’ rearing food was soon overcome by sinking large buckets containing dendrobaena worms level with the substrate. The pittas soon learned to jump into the buckets to get the worms and jump out again. No doubt their long legs gave them the advantage, while other birds in the flight were reluctant to take the plunge.
The fledgling period for hooded pittas is 16 days. That is also the age after hatching when the London Zoo birds were seen eating independently. Pittas can be long-lived in captivity, with the record being 22 years for a male and 12 years for a female.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.
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