Mangrove Pitta breeding: 1. Who’s who

posted in: Nesting | 13

“Tropical mangrove swamps and their surrounds; be they coastal or along river course are habitats of many living and interesting creatures.

“The specialist and resident bird has to be the terrestrial and colourful elusive Mangrove Pitta (Pitta Megarhyncha) which is increasingly difficult to find these days. Present sighting records officially classify them to be ‘Near Threatened’ under the Birdlife International Red Data Book (RDB of Birdlife International). Their precarious existence is heading for one mark higher to being, ‘Threatened’ if their habitats continue to be depleted and predation left unchecked.

“They live in the mangrove forests spending much of their time hopping in search of their favourite foods – crustaceans and by probing with their large, slender beaks deep into the forest floor that is periodically inundated by the flow and ebb of the tides.

“According to field guide bird books, not much is known about their breeding patterns and behaviors of these elusive birds apart from giving themselves away by the crystal and slurring calls of. ‘Wieuw- wieuw’. That call alone is enough to send a bolus dose of adrenalin rush to those who are passionate about the Pittidae family.

“May, June is about the breeding peak times to likely encounter and to observe the Mangrove Pittas at close quarters when they are most vocal. Let’s meet and be introduced to a nesting pair- probably the only pair, at most two, roaming this small mangrove forest edge of a village in Northern Peninsular Malaysia.

“Meet Mighty the male (above left) and Mindy the female (above right). It is difficult to differentiate the gender in the fields and opportunities to see them together are few or too far apart to scope them together.

“In photographic images, Mighty appears to be darker overall in plumage and his bodice appear to be dumpier as compared to Mindy who is more spindle-like.

“Let us see if Mighty and Mindy would give us this rare opportunity to follow their precarious trail, observe and document their habits and behaviors during their nesting window period.

“Join me on this trail to understand them better, help ourselves as citizen scientists to be aware, responsible, exercising discretion in our observations, in photography and documentation of this pittidae species.

“In doing so and with minimal human interference, it is hoped that threatened species be allowed to regenerate their low population and or slow down their extinction.
Several parts will follow this Mangrove Pitta series with emphasis on their breeding behaviors. This is an unprecedented breeding event observed in May/June 2009. Do enjoy the series.


13 Responses

  1. Gim Cheong

    From what I understand, the Mangrove Pitta cannot be sexed visually.


    HI Gin Cheong,

    You are quite right that sex of Mangrove pittas are not able to differentiate in the field.. if strictly based on what some field guide books you may have read say.

    If that is so, we must remember they are only guide books and it is hard to believe every word printed is that of authors/bird specialists etc who actually been an active witnesses in the field to all that is written about bird species, behaviors, habitats,foods, nestings etc in each of their books.
    It will take more than a lifetime of observation, resource, humongous luck to be able to see all that is written in any bird guides. This is what I believe.
    And I believe it is up to us as citizen scientists to go all out as an extention arm to garner more data- data that got missed out by field guides and put them into writing.

    We are at a different stage and age of observing birds and we are seeing more than what got written. We are fortunate that with better viewing equiptments,observers with means, literacy and with more writers willing to write share their observations- which at one time the only knowledge source we got was from bird guides where readers followed dogmatically.

    I have some credible birders-photographers who share their personal observation experiences. They attest that they are seeing things not even mentioned in field guides or any books yet to be written. Just because they were not documented did not mean they never happened.

    You will also notice that in most of my articles, I do not make mention of references to any specific field guides books etc.
    What I write is what I had observed. Not one more not one less. Whether they match with field guides or not, don’t bother me as I am confident to write only what I see.
    They are simply personal experiences with birds I have been seeing and visited.

    As for Mangrove pittas being uncommon terrestrial birds, they are not easiy seen. Today, many sprouting young birders and photographers are still hoping to just get a glimpse of pittas to make their day truely exciting.
    Sighting a pitta is never a boring moment- well for me anyway.

    Those who have seen, even just one , such moments were flighty and far in between where opportunities to study them close posed challenging.
    To be able to get close shots of them without stressing them unnecessary is extremely lucky.

    But there are birders-photographers who have that extra ordinary luck to see more than others where the bird is more co-operative and provide good views of study through the field scope or camera lens.

    If you had the opportunity to see a breeding pair together and study them well, you would have a change of heart about what you had ealier believe.

    I am yet to see a pair in copulation. If you do, you got your one in billion chance shot and I wish that for you to see who is the he and the she.

    Happy Birding Gim Cheong!

    Daisy O’Neill
    Avian Writer.

  3. Slim Sreedharan

    Regardless of which bird is the male, and which the female, this picture reveals one interesting and little known aspect of the breeding behaviour on local birds.

    It would seem that, with Mangrove Pittas, both sexes take part in building the nest!

  4. Kok Hui

    Mangrove Pitta are not known to show sexual dimorphism. I hope the readers do not go away thinking they can sexing Mangrove Pittas visually.

  5. Lee Chiu San

    With reference to the comments by both Gim Cheong and Kok Hua, I put forward the proposition that some species of birds can be visually sexed with more than 70% accuracy even though they do not exhibit noticeable sexual dimorphism.

    I have more experience in aviculture than in ornithology and know that when setting up pairs for breeding, seasoned aviculturalists have a high success rate, even with birds that exhibit few or no visual differences between the sexes.

    Birds in such genera would include Gracula (Hill Mynahs) Garrulax (Laughing Thrushes) Lorius and Eos (large lories) Cacatua (Cockatoos) and quite a few other species.

    The secret lies in observing behaviour. The birds have to be watched for a period of time to be able to make a fairly accurate guess as to which is likely to be male and which is female.

    I am glad that Daisy has been able to identify the male and the female in the pair of Pittas that she writes about.

    That said, it cannot be taken as a given that a male Mangrove Pitta will always be darker and dumpier than a female, though we can use this as a starting point for future writings.

    What Daisy noted were the differences in the pair she was observing. Just as in the case of human beings, there are individual variations in birds. In any given batch there may be some that are larger, fatter, darker or lighter than others. Even now, years after I donated the bird, I can still recognise from a distance one of my Moluccan Cockatoos among the many at the Jurong Bird Park.

    We will need more observations before being able to confirm whether or not the male is always darker in the case of the Mangrove Pitta or will some other observer find a pair in which the male is lighter?

  6. Tou Jing Yi

    True that some species that are merely classified as not able to be visually sexed when the visual differences are quite small, or else it would give field guide writers a pretty hard time.

    For instance, there are almost likely no field guide that will focus on sexing the common Rock Pigeons, often said to be sexually similar, but I had learn to tell the sex through the shape because there are many in front of my father’s shoplot when I was young and I had lots of opportunity looking at it and in the field, can quite confidently sex a Rock Pigeon, but of course much easier than viewing static photos only as the movements and behavior did help and some shape features are hard to captured or easily misinterpreted on static photos.

    Breeding activities are often the best events for one to try to figure out the differences in sexes and those observing enough nesting activities of a species can often provide some interesting features about the differences between sexes that many others may not notice in the past.

    However, many so called sexually similar species are often best differentiate only by size and calls and that’s why many birders will just to tend to ignore it and leave this to the few passionate ones who had the passion and time to figure that out.

  7. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Jing Yi,

    Among birds which the books say do not display “visible signs of sexual dimorphism” the pigeons and the doves are the ones easier to sex through observation of their behavior.

    And if one watches very carefully, you will notice that male pigeons tend to have more robust necks and shinier chest feathers than the females.

    Even size is not a good indication of sex, because I once had a very large Lorius garrulus (Yellow-backed Lory) that I assumed was male, until after 10 years, she laid an egg.

    The same is also surprisingly true of the Zebra dove (Geopelia striata).

    I agree with you that for many species, the best way to differentiate the sexes is by watching behavior and listening to calls. Among Garrulax (laughing thrushes) there is, as far as I can see, no visual difference between the males and the females, even when I have them in hand. But the different calls of the two sexes are unmistakable.

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