By Robert Mulvihill / National Aviary ornithologist
This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.
If you’ve ever seen a stub-tailed robin fledgling standing alert on your front lawn waiting for the next delivery of worms, then you already have a pretty good idea of the size, shape and stance of a group of Old World birds called pittas. The name “pitta” comes from a word for “small bird” in the Telugu language spoken by people in southeast India.
The 30-odd species of pittas share pretty much the same cookie-cutter silhouette — all of them are chunky, medium-sized songbirds with long sturdy legs, short stout beaks, large eyes and short, stubby tails — but their distinctive plumages comprise a brilliant palette of metallic blues, iridescent greens, vivid reds and bright yellows. In fact, for sheer variety of color and pattern, the songbird family, Pittidae, arguably rivals the tropical American tanagers, the North American wood warblers and even the New Guinean birds of paradise.
Most kinds of pittas live in forest habitats across India to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. A few species inhabit forests in central Africa and along the northeastern coasts of Australia. Most pitta species are fairly common where they occur, but one, the Gurney’s pitta from Thailand, is critically endangered.
Pittas mostly feed on the ground for earthworms, snails and other invertebrates. One study showed that a pitta’s brain has the proportionately largest olfactory bulb of any songbird, and the researchers concluded that pittas must use their sense of smell to help them locate worms and snails in the leaf litter and soil of densely shaded forest understories. To feed on snails, pittas take them to a rock or log within their territory that they use like an anvil to crack open the shells.
Two hooded pittas recently were added to the National Aviary’s Tropical Forest exhibit. Both the male and female have bright green body feathers, an all-black head, brilliant turquoise patches on their wings and rump, and bright white wing patches that flash when the birds take flight (which is rarely). Underneath the tail is a patch of bright red feathers that extends onto the belly. Their call, like that of other members of this family, does not match the beauty of their plumage — it is a simple two- or three-note whistle, “Whew! Whew!”
The pittas at the National Aviary have quickly made themselves at home by building a bulky nest of leaves and twigs in a rock crevice a few feet above the flowing stream — just the kind of place they would choose to nest in the wild. So, the next time you visit, be sure to look for them actively hopping over the rocks and logs on the forest floor, exploring every nook and cranny for more tidbits of food or new pieces of nesting material.
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