on 11th October 2013

“Blue-winged Pittas (Pitta moluccensis) are monotypic. They have no sub-species under their own category; thus making themselves known to be superspecies.

“Their nearest cousins that wear same colour coat of plumages – black, buff to brown, green, blue, white and red – are the Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha), Fairy Pitta (Pitta nympha) and Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura). What set them apart are the subtle, varying degrees of colour and design patterns located in their multicolour, feathered anatomy.

“Blue-winged Pittas are known to be generally accepted as monomorphic – where males and females are indistinguishable in plumages. However, to be more accurate, there will always as nature puts it – ‘no two leaves are totally identical’. So too… of these birds if we care to explore deeper and further. This makes each bird and specimen in the wild unique in its own.

“Under scrutiny – in the hands of scientists – they have documented some interesting and statistical obvious differences in their primary web feathers to determine the sex of the birds.

“Attached to the carpometacarpus and digits are the primary winged feathers of Blue-winged Pitta. It is only in flight that the signatory, white window patch is observed on its primaries.

“At most times, when bird is on ground or perched, the wings are in folding position. Occasionally, some white colour of the webs peeped out, sometimes they don’t (below left).

“A good illustration of wing feathers in field guide books has it that the primary feathers are made up of ten webbed feathers.

“I like Ben King’s Birds of Southeast Asia’s clear illustration of counting the primaries from inner to outer leading edge of the wing to read as from P1 to P10 (Primary feather No. 1-10).

“Based on scientific findings, it concludes that 92% of birds with white markings on outer web of P10 are MALE birds. A minimum of 86% birds without white on P10 are FEMALES and the window patch is averagely smaller than the male.

“So, let’s get real. When do we get to see and count those feathers when these wild birds are on ground or perched?

“Let’s visit their roosting and breeding grounds for a rare opportunity to observe them from a distance, behind the smoke screen, into their private realm and enjoy the colourful vibrancy of these ground dwelling gems.

“Here, a male bird was observed to wing stretch in comfort position displaying most of its primaries in the course of post preening. Caught in this rare shot, the primary feathers revealed full extent of the white, window patch (above right).

“This enlarged image shows primary feather P10 and clarity of feather webs and shafts of the male (above left).

“A side view and rare shot of another male taken during the breeding season, where his right wing hung low to enable counting of the ten primary feathers (above right).

“What made the bird to lax his wing, caught off guard which under normal circumstance and in predatory alertness would keep its wings tight and close to its flanks in preparedness for flight?

“The answer is of course shown in this rear image pose. The male bird, unaware of my presence, had other important matters in beak to deal with and to think about (left)!

“I will do no justice to the female bird for not showcasing its wing plumage for a comparison with the male. For that, I had to recall a breeding pair of Blue-winged Pitta 1st photographed seven years ago on 27th June 2006, Kedah, Peninsular Malaysia.

“The male is shown here (below left). The female is shown here (below right).

“There must have been hundreds into the thousands of photographs taken of this pair by the many photographers from different places taken, when news of pitta nesting broke like wild fire. But… how many knew the sex of those birds they clicked away into storage then?

“When and what else would one be able to tell the sex apart… but only during the small window of opportunity during their courting period.

“For this, readers will need to follow me into the next exciting phase…. into the breeding moments of the Blue-winged Pitta on mainland Penang, Peninsula Malaysia.

“See you soon…”

Avian Writer Daisy O’Neill
Penang, Malaysia
29th September 2013
Copyright article and all copy images – Courtesy of Daisy O’Neill Bird Conservation Fund

Birds of Southeast Asia-Ben King, Martin Woodcock and E.C. Dickenson
Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula – David R. Wells

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

5 Responses

  1. Dear Daisy,

    Apart from your excellent pictures on the visual differences between the male and female pittas, your other photos confirm what aviculturalists have also noted – that worms seem to make up a good part of the diets of Blue Winged and Mangrove Pittas.

    First – a disclaimer. The above-mentioned two species of Pittas are notoriously difficult to maintain in captivity. But they very frequently end up in captivity due to their habit of frequently finding their ways into houses.

    I will state right away that ALL Pittas are not suitable as cage birds. They can only be maintained for any length of time in spacious aviaries, preferably with live plants and natural earth floors. Of all the Pittas offered for sale, as far as I know, only the Hooded adapts reasonably well to aviary life.

    Coming back to the Blue Winged and the Mangrove Pittas (which for many years were considered to be the same species) I have had a number of them given to me by friends or purchased from pet shops. Most were obtained in poor condition, and some died.

    Though they would eat most of the standard foods offered to soft-billed birds, (commercial mixes, mealworms, baby crickets, minced lean meat or fish) they did not appear to do so readily, and did not regain condition when fed on these.

    However, over a period of at least a month, a diet comprising a large percentage of earthworms did help to get them back into fit-enough condition to allow a decision to be made as to whether to release them or pass them on, as I did, to an organisation with more staff and facilities, such as the Jurong Bird Park, to provide this special item in the diet.

    Bear this in mind the next time a Pitta enters your house. Which could happen when they migrate at this time of the year.

  2. Dear Chiu San,

    Thank you for additional input from aviculturist’s point of view.
    In addition to their specialised habitat and earthworms being their staple food,if these colourful birds had been good songsters, we wouldn’t have much chance of seeing them in the wild anymore.

    Enjoy the rest or the series.


  3. Dear Chiu San,

    My stumbling into this site was due to a Pitta stumbling into my house in Chennai, South India, this morning. Your info was most useful. Its probably on its winter passage from the north.

    I will release the bird in a forested area on the fringe of the city today itself, after trying to feed it worms and water.

    Daisys photos are stunning and her notes very absorbing. Keep it up and thank you.


  4. Dear Mr Ramakanth,

    I am very thankful that you have found the information useful in helping the Pitta return to health.

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