COURSERS & PRATINCOLES Glareolidae The Coursers and Pratincoles are a small family of shorebirds with slim, elongated bodies and (often) long wings. They are entirely restricted to the Old World. The coursers (8 species in the genera Rhinoptilus, Smutsornis, & Cursorius) are generally birds of short-grass plains or deserts, often far from water. Yet my favorite photo of a bird in this family was taken at lake's edge: a Double-banded Courser (left or above) looking diminutive between two large piles of hippo dung at Lake Jipe, Tsavo Nat'l Park, Kenya. A good example of a savanna courser is the Temminck's Courser (below right) of the short grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. It is particularly partial to recently burned areas, and may appear within hours of the a recent fire.

In contrast, most pratincoles (7 species in the genus Glareola) are often water edge birds, some preferring muddy margins of lakes or estuaries. A fair number are highly migratory; an example is the Collared Pratincole (below ) which ranges from the southern Palearctic and throughout Africa.

One group of small pratincoles is partial to the rocky edges and islets of rushing rivers. I've watched the Rock Pratincole G. nuchalis on the Ogooué River in Gabon, and the Small Pratincole G. lactea on the Ramganga River in Corbett Nat'l Park, north India, doing similar things: sitting on rocky islets or taking short river edge flights in roaring rivers on which one might think a dipper would enjoy.

The Australian Pratincole (right in a photo by John Marchant) is in its own genus (Stiltia) and forms somewhat of an intermediate between coursers and pratincoles. It is an arid country bird with elongated wings.

The final species in the family is the Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius whose primary range is along the banks of large rivers in north and central Africa. Its affinities are uncertain and it has been placed in its own family ["Pluvianidae"] or subfamily ["Plivianinae"] at various times. There is a wonderful myth about the Egyptian Plover as the "Crocodile Bird," having its origins in the visit of Herodotus to Egypt in 459 BC and nicely summarized by Maclean (1996): "His account of a small bird picking food from the teeth of a gaping crocodile referred, it has been suggested, to the Egyptian Plover. Whether or not this is so, the tale was further romanticized by A. Brehm in the nineteenth century and R. Meinertzhagen in the twentieth century, both of whom stated that they had personally seen the Egyptian Plover picking the teeth of crocodiles on more than one occasion."

Alas, to spoil the legend, Maclean (1996) concludes that "no reliable observer since then has seen [it] acting as a crocodile toothpick... The myth has been perpetuated in the literature and needs finally to be laid to rest, unless contrary proof can be found."

One of the most beautiful patterns belongs to the Heuglin's or Three-banded Courser of east Africa; this nice shot (left) is by Dale & Marian Zimmerman. It seems to be largely nocturnal and hides in the shade of sparse bushes in its arid habitat during the day. I would never have seen this species on a 1981 Kenya trip but for a known stake-out that Terry Stevenson took us to see our only day with a guide. As with many things, there is no substitute for local knowledge....

Another species with nocturnal habits is Jerdon's Courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus of India. It was thought to be extinct until rediscovered in January 1986 after extensive surveys of habitat by the Bombay Natural History Society. It is one of the world's rarest birds and distinctly in danger of extinction. As Maclean (1996) summarized: "species rediscovered just in time, as planned irrigation scheme passing through [the only known] site was then diverted, following conservation pressure." Since then there has been progress in protecting its scrub deserty habitat in Andhra Pradesh, east-central India.

As you can see in the photos, many species in this family have cryptic plumage that helps than hide in barren country, but many have striking and startling wing patterns in flight. Thus birds can be obvious in flight but seem to "disappear" when they land. All species among the Glareolidae feed primarily on insects. Pratincoles forage mostly in flight; coursers mostly on the ground. As many live in hot and arid climates, a good many of the species are crepuscular and rest during the day.

Sibley & Monroe (1980), working with biochemical evidence, considered the coursers and pratincoles to be a subfamily of an enlarged Glareolidae that included the Crab-Plover. Most authorities, though, place the latter bird in its own monotypic family, a position that has been followed by Handbook of the Birds of the World series. I follow suit here.

Photos: The Double-banded Courser Smutsornis africanus was along the shores of Lake Jipe, Kenya, on 26 Nov 1981. The Temminck's Courser Cursorius temminckii was in the Masai Mara of Kenya in Nov 1981. The Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola was also at Lake Jipe on 26 Nov 1981. John Marchant photographed the Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella in the interior of New South Wales, Australia, 26 Oct 1982. Dale & Marian Zimmerman took the Heuglin's (Three-banded) Courser Rhinoptilus cinctus in Samburu Nat'l Park, Kenya, in 1981. Photos © 2001 Don Roberson, except those attributed to John Marchant and Dale & Marian Zimmerman, who hold those copyrights (used with permission).

Bibliographic note

Family book: rating IIII [out of 5 possible]
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders  of the World. Croom Helm, London.

This book covers all the Charadriformes -- not just the coursers and pratincoles -- and so includes shorebirds (waders), stilts, avocets, jaçanas, thick-knees, plovers, and oystercatchers. It is not a "family book" per se, since its focus is on identification problems, but it does include sections on "habits" and migratory or seasonal "movements." Breeding biology and similar topics are not covered here. However, the quality of the identification text more than makes up for this "defect", and adding broader topics would have made for a very fat book. John Marchant gets special credit for the text -- an upgrade from his 1977 guide (with Prater & Vuorinen) -- which surveys the literature well and is based on much original research. The book does rely on Hayman's paintings for illustrations and while they are generally good, I think that photos are a necessary requirement when dealing with the subtleties of shorebird identification. So use this book as an introduction to these families -- and the identification problems that exist -- but rely on other texts for state-of-the-art details.
Because Hayman et al. (1986) is really aimed at field identification issues, one should supplement it with the excellent introduction to this family in Maclean (1996), which also has an outstanding set of photographs.

Other literature cited:

Maclean, G. L. 1996. Family Glareolidae (Coursers and Pratincoles). Pp. 364-383 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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