Pittidae – Pittas

Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha ©Gary Kinard

Pittas are a family, Pittidae, of passerine birds mainly found in tropical Asia and Australasia, although a couple of species live in Africa. Pittas are all similar in general structure and habits, and have often been placed in a single genus, although as of 2009 they are now split into three genera, Pitta, Erythropitta and Hydrornis. The name is derived from the word pitta in the Telugu language of South India and is a generic local name used for all small birds. Pittas are medium-sized by passerine standards, at 15cm to 2 cm in length, and stocky, with strong, longish legs and long feet. They have very short tails and stout, slightly decurved bills. Most, but not all, have brightly coloured plumage.

They are fairly terrestrial birds of wet forest floors. They eat snails, insects and similar invertebrate prey. Pittas are mostly solitary and lay up to six eggs in a large spherical nest in a tree or shrub, or sometimes on the ground. Both parents care for the young. Many species of pittas are migratory, and they often end up in unexpected places like house-gardens during migration.

A number of species of pitta are threatened with extinction. One of these, the Gurney’s Pitta, is listed as endangered by the IUCN; a further eight species are listed as vulnerable. The main threat to pittas is habitat loss in the form of rapid deforestation.

The pittas range from the Blue-banded Pitta at 15cm to the Giant pitta, which can be up to 29cm in length. In weight they range from 42g to 210g. Pittas are stout bodied birds with long, strong tarsi and long feet. There is considerable variation in the colour of the legs and feet, this may be used by females in judging the quality of males. The wings have ten primaries are generally rounded and short Those of the four migratory species, however, are more pointed. Although pittas are behaviourally reluctant to fly, they are capable and even strong fliers. The tails range from being short to very short, and is composed of twelve feathers.

Atypically for forest floor species, the plumage of pittas is often bright and colourful. Only one species, the Eared Pitta, has entirely cryptic colours in the adults of both sexes. In the same genus, three others have drabber than average plumage. Like the other Hydrornis pittas they are sexually dimorphic in their plumage, with the females tending towards being drabber and more cryptic than the males. Across most of the family the brighter colours tend to be on the undersides, with the bright colours on the rump, wings and uppertail coverts being concealable. Being able to conceal bright colours from predator approach from above is important.

The pittas are generally birds of tropical forests, semi-forests and scrub. Of particular importance to most species are forests with lots of cover, a rich understory, and leaf litter for feeding. Pittas often frequent areas near waterways as well. Some species inhabit swamps and bamboos forests, and the mangrove pitta, as its name suggests, is a mangrove specialist. A number of species are lowland forest specialists, for example the rainbow pitta is not found above 400m, whereas other species may occur at much higher elevations, for example Rusty-naped Pitta have been found up to 2,600m . This varies in the Fairy Pitta across its range, reaching up to 1,300m in Taiwan but at much lower levels in Japan. In addition to natural habitats pittas may use human altered habitats, for example migrating Blue-winged Pittas and Hooded Pittas use parks and urban gardens in Singapore and India Pitta is found in gardens in Sri Lanka.

The Fairy Pitta migrates from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and coastal China to Borneon. The greatest diversity of pittas are found in South-east Asia. The movements of pittas are poorly known and notoriously difficult to study.

Pittas are diurnal, requiring light in order to find their often cryptic prey. They are nevertheless often found in darker areas and are highly secretive, though they will respond to imitations of their calls. They are generally found as single birds, with even young birds not associating with their parents unless they are being fed. Small groups have been observed during migration.

The pittas are strongly territorial, with territories varying in size from 3000 m² in the African Pitta to 10,000m² in the Rainbow Pitta. They will perform territory defence displays on the edges of their territories, although fights between rivals have only been recorded once. Migratory species will defend non-breeding feeding territories in addition to their breeding ones.

Earthworms form the major part of the diet of pittas, followed by snails in order of importance. Earthworms may however become seasonally unavailable in dry conditions when the worms move deeper into the soil. In addition a wide range of invertebrate prey is eaten, including many insects groups such as termites, ants, beetles, true bugs, and lepidopterans; as well as freshwater crabs, centipedes, millipedes, and spiders. In addition to invertebrates some species, such as the Fairy Pitta and Rainbow Pitta, have been recorded feeding on vertebrate prey. These in Fairy Pitta, shrews.

Like most birds the pittas are monogamous breeders, and defend breeding territories. Most species are seasonal breeders, timing their breeding to occur at the onset of the rainy season. The courtship behaviours of the family are poorly known, but the elaborate dance of the African pitta includes jumping into the air with a puffed out breast and parachuting down back down to the perch. The pittas build a rudimentary nest that is a dome with a side entrance. The structure of the nest is consistent across the whole family.Both parents incubate the clutch, the period between laying and hatching being between 14 and 18 days (14 to 16 being more typical). The chicks usually hatch asynchronously, over a number of days, but in some species the hatching is synchronous. On hatching the parents of at least two species are reported to consume the eggshells.

According to the IOC there are 42 species of Pitta in just three genera; they are set out in the species list below.

Species List

Eared Pitta Hydrornis phayrei
Blue-naped Pitta Hydrornis nipalensis
Blue-rumped Pitta Hydrornis soror
Rusty-naped Pitta Hydrornis oatesi
Schneider’s Pitta Hydrornis schneideri
Giant Pitta Hydrornis caeruleus
Blue-headed Pitta Hydrornis baudii
Blue Pitta Hydrornis cyaneus
Bar-bellied Pitta Hydrornis elliotii
Javan Banded Pitta Hydrornis guajanus
Malayan Banded Pitta Hydrornis irena
Bornean Banded Pitta Hydrornis schwaneri
Gurney’s Pitta Hydrornis gurneyi

Whiskered Pitta Erythropitta kochi
Philippine Pitta Erythropitta erythrogaster
Sula Pitta Erythropitta dohertyi
Sulawesi Pitta Erythropitta celebensis
Siao Pitta Erythropitta palliceps
Sangihe Pitta Erythropitta caeruleitorques
South Moluccan Pitta Erythropitta rubrinucha
North Moluccan Pitta Erythropitta rufiventris
Louisiade Pitta Erythropitta meeki
Bismarck Pitta Erythropitta novaehibernicae
Papuan Pitta Erythropitta macklotii
Blue-banded Pitta Erythropitta arquata
Garnet Pitta Erythropitta granatina
Graceful Pitta Erythropitta venusta
Black-crowned Pitta Erythropitta ussheri

Hooded Pitta Pitta sordida
Ivory-breasted Pitta Pitta maxima
Azure-breasted Pitta Pitta steerii
Superb Pitta Pitta superba
African Pitta Pitta angolensis
Green-breasted Pitta Pitta reichenowi
Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura
Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha
Blue-winged Pitta Pitta moluccensis
Mangrove Pitta Pitta megarhyncha
Elegant Pitta Pitta elegans
Rainbow Pitta Pitta iris
Noisy Pitta Pitta versicolor
Black-faced Pitta Pitta anerythra

Species Links
  • Banded Pitta Pitta guajana

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Banded Pitta Pitta guajana

    Species Account
    The banded pittas, Hydrornis (guajana) spp., are a group of birds in the Pittidae family that were formerly lumped as a single species, the banded pitta. They are found in forest in the Thai-Malay Peninsula and the Greater Sundas.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 42

Useful Reading
  • Pittas, Broadbills & Asities

    By Frank Lambert & Martin Woodcock | Pica Press | 1996 | Hardback | 271 pages, 24 colour plates, line illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9781873403242 Buy this book from NHBS.com

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