Pittas: Pittidae

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PITTAS: Pittidae



Pittas are medium-sized birds with a large head, short neck, strong bill often hooked at the tip, round body, short rounded wings, short tail, longish legs, and strong, large feet. They are some of the world's most brightly colored birds and are sometimes called the "jewels of the forest" and "jewel thrushes" (because of similarity to thrushes). Many species contain patches of white, chestnut, turquoise, green, red, purple, and black, which are found on the chin, breast, or body areas that are hidden by dull-colored wing feathers. Both sexes contain these same colors, however females are generally duller. Adults are 5.9 to 11 inches (15 to 28 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.6 and 7.1 ounces (45 and 202 grams).


Pittas are found from Africa to the Solomon Islands and from Japan through Southeast Asia to New Guinea and Australia. They are mostly found in peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. One species is found in India, two species are found from west-central to east-central Africa, and two species live along the northern and eastern coasts of Australia.


Most pittas inhabit the understory (level of tropical forests nearest ground level) of lowland tropical and subtropical forests. They prefer areas that are moist, such as those near rivers and streams or in shaded ravines. Some pittas inhabit moist, montane (mountain) forests from sea level to elevations of 8,200 feet (2,500 meters).


Food consists of insects, small frogs, snails, snakes, mice, earthworms, and other small vertebrates (animals with a backbone) and invertebrates (animals without a backbone).


Pittas are terrestrial birds, staying generally on or near the ground. They prefer to walk or run, rather than fly, when alarmed or disturbed, and tend to be shy, usually found alone or in pairs. They do not generally migrate, move seasonally, but some species migrate at night over land and water. The birds defend a territory that varies depending on the species from 0.8 to 2.5 acres (0.3 to 1.0 hectares), but can be as large as 50 acres (20 hectares). Their defense calls are one, two, or sometimes three syllables that sound like a whistle or buzz. A loud pleasant double whistle is heard in the early morning or evening. When unwanted visitors enter their territory, pittas flash a white wing patch, spread the tail, or fan out the bright breast feathers. At other times, pittas stay hidden by lowering their bright breasts and remaining still.

Most pittas are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; have one mate). They begin to breed at the start of the wet season, except for one species that breeds year-round. Both sexes build a large, bulky, domed nest that is loosely constructed with leaves and twigs that are placed on a platform made of larger sticks. A side entrance is often made in front of a path or clearing that the female faces as she sits on her eggs. The interior is lined with fibers or finer leaves. The nest may be located on the ground or 3 to 50 feet (1 to 15 meters) above the ground, usually in low vegetation. Females lay two to seven eggs, although most species lay three to four eggs. The incubation period (time to sit on eggs before hatching) is fourteen to sixteen days, with both sexes sharing incubating duties. Young are born naked, blind, and unable to move far. Both males and females share the brooding and feeding of young. The fledgling period (time for a young bird to grow feathers necessary to fly) is eleven to seventeen days. Although able to fly, they are still fed by the adults for seven to ten days, and up to thirty days.


People make pets out of pittas, hunt them for food, and enjoy watching them because of their colorful feathers.


One species of pitta is listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; eight species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and four species are listed as Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.


Physical characteristics: Hooded pittas have a black head, thin throat, and bill; dark greenish upperparts and wings; light wing bands; dark green underparts; black flight feathers; a black tail with blue-green tips and red underneath; black belly patch and lower belly; and pale brown to pinkish feet. Females are slightly duller than males. Adults are 6.3 to 7.5 inches (16 to 19 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.6 and 2.5 ounces (42 and 70 grams).

Geographic range: Hooded pittas are found throughout Southeast Asia, from the foothills of the Himalayas to Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea.

Habitat: Hooded pittas inhabit forested and wooded areas including primary rainforests, secondary forests, bamboo forests, scrublands, overgrown plantations, and cultivated areas. They are found from sea level to 4,900 feet (1,500 meters).

Diet: Their diet consists mostly of insects, beetles, ants, termites, cockroaches, bugs, various larvae (LAR-vee), earthworms, snails, and berries. They hop quickly along the ground among dead leaves in search of food, and often feed in pairs about 16 to 64 feet (5 to 30 meters) apart.

Behavior and reproduction: Hooded pittas are strong fliers that are found alone or in pairs. When alarmed, or in order to distract other birds, they display such features as bowing, head-bobbing, wing flicking, and wing/tail fanning. They breed from February to August. Their call varies depending on region, but generally is a double-noted fluty whistle like "whew-whew." The dome-shaped nests are usually on the ground, made of roots, leaves (often bamboo), rootlets, moss, and twigs. The inside is lined with finer material. A short path, made of twigs, usually leads up to the entrance. Females usually lay three or four eggs that are white with gray, brown, or dark purple spots. Both sexes share nest construction, incubation, and care of the young. The incubation period is fifteen to sixteen days. The fledgling period is about sixteen days.

Hooded pittas and people: There is no known significance to humans.

Conservation status: Hooded pittas are not threatened. They are common throughout most of their range. ∎


Physical characteristics: African pittas have a black head with a yellow side stripe; white throat with pink wash; blackish brown bill with a reddish base; deep buff breast and flanks (sides); whitish color under the bill and throat that turns yellow at breast; bright olive green upperparts with blue and black banding on wings; dark azure-blue rump; blackish flight feathers with paler tips; black tail with red underside and blue upperside; and pinkish to grayish white feet. Males and females look alike. Juveniles look similar to adults except they have duller colors. They are 6.7 to 8.7 inches (17 to 22 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.6 and 3.5 ounces (45 and 98 grams).

Geographic range: African pittas are found scattered near the west-central coast of Africa including Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast, and in central and southeastern parts of Africa including Tanzania, Malawi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameron, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Uganda, and Kenya.

Habitat: African pittas inhabit areas of dense undergrowth including evergreen bush country; thickets along waterways, swampy areas, and secondary forests; and tall semi-deciduous and evergreen rainforests. They are found from sea level to 4,100 feet (1,250 meters).

Diet: Their food includes insects, insect larvae, ants, termites, beetles, slugs, grubs, snails, millipedes, caterpillars, and earthworms. The birds sit quietly and watch for prey. If none is found, they go to another perch or fly down to the ground to forage among the leaf-litter of the forest floor.

Behavior and reproduction: African pittas are mostly terrestrial, often defending the territory by singing from the ground or a perch. They are found alone or in pairs during the breeding season. The birds hop quickly on the ground while foraging, and fly short distances when alarmed. Their main call is a "prrrrt" followed by a short, sharp "ouit" or "wheet." It is believed that they breed during the wet season. Their nest is a loosely made dome that is placed 7 to 26 feet (2 to 8 meters) off the ground usually in thorny vegetation. Nests are made of roots, sticks, twigs, dried leaves, rootlets, and fine fibers, with a side entrance and (sometimes) a platform made of dead leaves and twigs. Females lay one to four eggs, but usually three, which are dull creamy-white, sometimes greenish or pinkish, with reddish brown and purplish spots and lines over gray-lilac markings.

African pittas and people: There are no known significance to humans.

Conservation status: African pittas are not considered to be threatened. They are common in their habitat, however deforestation is hurting much of their environment. ∎



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