in the gloom of an Old World jungle a pitta stands motionless, giving a
characteristic whistle. You, a potential observer, know that if you
could see it, it will be a memorable experience, as pittas are
wonderfully colorful. But they are also characteristically elusive, and
more often than not, the pitta disappears unseen. Photography would
seem impossible. Indeed, for all my visits to tropical rainforests,
this shot of Sulawesi Pitta (above) is my best
effort. [Sulawesi Pitta is a recent split from Red-bellied Pitta; more
on that below]. The collection of photos below are from other
photographers — I stand in awe at their inspiring accomplishments.
Alas, much of my time in Old World was pre-digital. Digital photography
has made pittas a bit more accessible — yet, still, each encounter is
- 49 species in the Old World tropics
- DR personal total: 14 species (28%), 3 photo'd
Pittidae is a fairly small family of mid-sized, short-tailed,
long-legged ground-dwelling jewels in the Old World tropics. I've spent
hours trying to track down calling birds inside Bornean forests, and
encounters there with Blue-headed Pitta Hydrornis baudii, Giant Pitta H. caerulea, and Black-headed Pitta were absolute highlights (see also the bottom of this page). Here (left) is a very nice shot of Black-headed Pitta by Gareth Knass. If pressed, I'd choose pittas as my favorite family of birds in the world.
birders have similar feelings. Chris Gooddie, a British birder, became
so smitten with them that he took a year off work to search out the
(then) 32 species in the world. He has written a very entertaining book
about his experiences (Gooddie 2010).
are particularly associated with the islands of the Indo-Pacific.
Borneo, the Philippines, New Guinea, and many Indonesian and Melanesian
islands host endemic pittas. The absolutely gorgeous Ivory-breasted Pitta
(right, a wonderful shot by Rob Hutchinson) is endemic to Halmahera and
nearby Moluccan islands. I was with Rob when he called in this
individual with a tape, and the bird appeared only briefly. Rob managed
this great shot; mine was distant and marginal. It is truly remarkable
how difficult these colorful birds are to see. Unless they decide to
fly briefly up to a perch (as this one has done) they seemingly melt
away in the understory.
The Asian mainland also has impressive pittas, including Blue Pitta
(above in an excellent shot by J.J. Harrison). This pitta appears to be
at the spot in Khao Yai where some elusive species become accustomed to
being fed mealworms. We visited the spot in January 2013 — by then a
rare Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina greeted us but the 'acclimatized' Blue Pitta did not appear.
There are also two pittas in tropical Africa. This one (below) is Green-breasted Pitta,
in another fine shot by Gareth Knass. Again, I have spent a day
searching for it at a "known" location in Uganda, and again the great
bird has eluded me.
have always been thought of as a cohesive group of 24-32 species (e.g.,
Lambert & Woodcock 1996, Erritzoe 2003). Irestedt et al. (2006)
used molecular evidence to show that there were three major clades
within the family, and divided them into three genera. The first-named
genus Pitta had the 14 species. The two African species are in this genus, as is Indian Pitta P. brachyura.
Pittas in this genus have green upperparts with a blue wing-patch and
contains all the migratory species, like Blue-winged Pitta P. moluccensis and Noisy Pitta. Noisy Pitta
(left, in a photo be Arthur Grosset) breeds in eastern Australia in the
southern summer and then 'winters' in New Guinea. Many of the island
endemics are presumably derived from migratory species.
Another clade was named Erythropitta.
These are mostly small species with short tails, lots of red on the
underparts, and greenish or bluish backs. There was initially six
species in this genus, but that has now tripled when Red-bellied Pitta E. erythrogaster was split into 17 species (more on that below).
The final genus, Hydrornis,
includes some variable Oriental species that are sexual dimorphic in
plumage and have a cryptic juvenile plumage in the species that have
been studied. This genus includes Eared Pitta which had often been
placed into its own genus ["Anthocincla"] because of its alleged primitive characters.
In a recent visit to Thailand, guide Nik Upton located a pair of Eared Pitta
(right; photo by N. Upton) deep in the understory. Like many pittas, it
was not particularly shy but just cryptic and very difficult to view
after each hop across the littered ground. This photo is of the adult
female of the pair.
number of world checklists within the last 50 years listed as few as 24
species. This was after the great heydays of lumping in the mid-20th
century. This contrasts with the lists of of Sclater and Elliot at the
end of the 19th century that contained 48 and 47 species, respectively
(Erritzoe 2003). Now, in 2014, we are back with the numbers envisioned
by 19th century ornithologists. It began with the book on pittas and
relatives (Lambert & Woodcock 1996) that split Sula Pitta E. dohertyi from the widespread Indo-Pacific Red-bellied Pitta on morphological grounds. Then Rheindt and Eaton (2010) split Banded Pitta Hydrornis guajanus is split into three species: Malayan Banded-Pitta H. irena, Bornean Banded-Pitta H. schwaneri, and Javan Banded-Pitta H. guajanus. These splits were widely accepted (as was the split of Black-headed E. ussheri from Garnet Pitta E. granatina in the Sundaic region), bringing the list to 34 species.
This Javan Banded-Pitta (left, photo by Doug Janson from wiki-commons) is banded, and may have been part of a field study.
Irestedt et al. (2013) did a complete review of the entire Red-bellied
Pitta set. They used both nuclear and mtDNA, combined with vocal and
morphological evidence, and "based on all available evidence" they
proposed that the E. erythrogaster complex is composed of 17 species.
Irestedt et al. (2013) called the former "E. erythrogaster" the "great speciator." The nominate race of the formed "Red-bellied Pitta," erythrogaster, is endemic to the Philippines. And, as mentioned above, Sula Pitta E. dohertyi had already been split by some. The net is 15 new proposed species: (1) Talaud Pitta E. inspeculata, (2) Sulu Pitta E. yairocho, (3) Siao Pitta E. palliceps, (4) Sangihe Pitta E. caeruleitorques, (5) Sulawesi Pitta E. celebensis, (6) Buru Pitta E. rubrinucha, (7) Seram Pitta E. piroensis, (8) Louisiade Pitta E. meeki, (9) Moluccan Pitta E. rufiventris, (10) New Ireland Pitta E. novaehibernicae, (11) New Britain Pitta E. gazellae, (12) Tabar Pitta E. splendida, (13) Habenicht’s Pitta E. habenichti, (14) D’ Entrecasteaux Pitta E. finschii, and (15) Papuan Pitta E. macklotii.
Nearly all are island endemics and nearly all are field identifiable on
plumage. Papuan Pitta is widespread across much (but not all) of New
Guinea, plus the Kai, Aru, and w. Papuan islands. Habenicht's Pitta is
the lowland and foothill species in northern New Guinea. It is perhaps
the most controversial of all the splits and was not adopted by the
most recent New Guinea field guide, which did not split any of the
"Red-bellied" pittas and stated that Papuan and Habenicht's are "not
reliably identifiable by appearance or voice;" (Pratt & Beehler
2015). The molecular evidence shows substantial differentiation, so
there is work to be done on these little-known taxa.
et al's (2013) proposal of the 17-way split was adopted by the Clements
and eBird world checklists in 2014, bringing the world pitta total to
49 species. As there are several other endemic pittas in the
Philippines, E. erythrogaster was not called "Philippine
Pitta" but, instead, the old name Blue-breasted Pitta was reasonably
adopted for this new Philippine endemic. Personally, I had recorded 4
of the 17 taxa in the old "Red-bellied Pitta" complex, but one of those
was "heard only," so my net was only two extra lifers, with some 14
One of the 'new' species accepted out
of the split of the former "Red-bellied Pitta" is on Sulawesi. My
distant photo of a half-hidden adult is at the top of this page. Here
(below, a photo by Jason Thompson from wiki-commons) is a very fine
photo of a Sulawesi Pitta in juvenal plumage, just
started to molt into adult plumage with new green, blue, and red
feathers appearing on the underparts.
former "Red-bellied Pitta" was widespread in range from the Philippines
to the Solomon Island. The other Indo-Pacific pitta with numerous races
is Hooded Pitta (left; a photo from Papua New Guinea
by Steve Wilson). There are at least 12 races, some black-crowned and
some chestnut-crowned. No one has yet done a molecular phylogeny of
this complex. Are there still more "new" pittas to come?
Gooddie accomplished his goal of seeing all the pittas at the time when
32 species were widely accepted as the full set. Now there are 49
species and counting. I wondered how many he still has left to see if
he used the newest taxonomy. So I wrote him and the answer was that,
except for the "Red-bellied" group, none. He was aware of pending
splits in "Banded Pitta" and potential splits in Elegant Pitta, so he
saw all of them except the vigorsii race of Elegant [Tanimbar
and Kai islands in eastern Indonesia; this was once split by Clements
but is lumped again in recent editions]. Chris says that he has
continued to travel and see additional races of several pittas, but he
is still 12 short of the entire 17-species-set of the now-split
"Red-bellied Pitta." He agreed that it is likely there are some
"cryptic species" in the complex, but thought that there is "so much
vocal variation" within the known taxa, and so much to be learned about
the remote island birds, that it was "too early to split Red-bellied
Pittas are so wonderful that I list two pittas — Gurney's Pitta H. gurneyi and Giant Pitta H. caeruleais — among my "top 50 birds"
in the world. Gurney's has an exceptionally limited range along the s.
Thailand-Burma border and is gorgeous. It is critically endangered in
Thailand but there is more hope for the population in remote Burma. A
further eight species (including the elusive Giant Pitta) are listed by
the IUC as vulnerable. The main threat to pittas is habitat loss by
If I expanded by "top 50" birds in the
world to a hundred, I'd surely add several more pittas. So many are
just drop-dead gorgeous, including Rainbow Pitta of
northern Australia (right, in an exceptional shot by David Fisher).
They are all shy and secretive, with ethereal voices that draw one far
from trails into primeval tropical forests in the Old World.
personal best memory was at Danum Valley, Borneo, and I wrote of it in
my daily notes that evening (below, notes from 4 Aug 2003). I really
really really wanted to see the endemic Blue-headed Pitta, so after a
rainstorm one afternoon, I hike out a trail to a spot where we had
heard one the day before. I sat down quietly near the end of a log, and
briefly played a tape. To my shock, "the male Blue-headed Pitta
appeared at the end of the log where it looked around, shook itself,
and puffed out breast / belly (see sketch). Absolutely crippling views.
It hopped down log towards me a bit before flying off."
Returning home, I even tried to do a painting of the encounter with the Blue-headed Pitta (below,
now embedded in color among my field notes). Still, I'm far from Chris
Gooddie in terms of success — I've barely seen a quarter of the world's
pittas. Just another good reason to take yet another long trans-Pacific
flight to a forest in the lowlands of southeast Asia . . . .
Photos: The distant Sulawesi Pitta E. celebensis was at Tamun, Bogani Nani Wartabone NP, Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 6 Oct 2011. Gareth Knass photographed the Black-headed Pitta P. ussheri along the Kinabagaton River, Sukau, Sabah, in March 2005. Rob Hutchinson photographed the Ivory-breasted Pitta P. maxima near Foli, Halmahera, on 8 Oct 2011. J.J. Harrison photograph the Blue Pitta P. cyanea at Khai Yai NP, Thailand, on 29 Nov 2012. Gareth Knass photographed the Green-breasted Pitta P. reichenowi at Kanyanachu, Kibale NP, Uganda, in Feb 2006. Arthur Grosset photographed the Noisy Pitta P. versicolor at Paluma, Queensland, Australia, in Dec 2010. Nick Upton photographed the Eared Pitta Hydrornis phayrei at Khao Yai NP, Thailand, on 26 Dec 2012. Doug Janson photographed the Javan Banded-Pitta H. guajanus on Java on 31 May 2003. Jason Thompson photographed the juvenal-plumage Sulawesi Pitta E. celebensis at Tangkoko, Bogani Nani Wartabone NP, Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 24 Oct 2013. Steve Wilson photograph the Hooded Pitta P. sordida
when it crossed a Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise display ground at Baiyer
River Sanctuary, Papua New Guinea, on 27 Oct 1983 (Steve was in a
blind). David Fisher photographed the beautiful Rainbow Pitta P. iris in northern Australia. My sketch and painting of Blue-headed Pitta Hydrornis baudii, is from Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia, on 4 Aug 2003.
© Don Roberson, © Gareth Knass, © Rob Hutchinson, ©
J.J. Harrison, © Arthur Grosset, © Nick Upton, © Doug
Janson, © Jason Thompson, © Steve Wilson, and © David Fisher, as credited above and used with permission; all rights reserved.
Lambert, Frank, and Martin Woodcock. 1996. Pittas, Broadbills, and Asities. Pica Press, Sussex, England.
the standard format of books in the Pica Press series, color plates are
found separately (with facing page captions) from the text, giving the
feeling this is meant to be a field guide. The quality of the paintings
is good, at least to my eye, given my minimal experience in the wild
with these great birds but more experience in handling museum
specimens. I think the paintings of the pittas are better than those of
broadbills (also covered in the book), and there a lot of illustrations
of females and immature pittas. The introductory text appears mostly
up-to-date, and the species accounts seemed well-researched. Despite
giving the book high marks for apparent accuracy and attractive
paintings within the limits of the genre, how I wish for a more
"old-fashioned" book on these special families, with full-page spreads
of each species in habitat and evocative detail of each species'
discovery to science! The "field guide" approach to the art, and the
plodding quality of the scientific text, just does not do justice to
these marvelous creatures. Yet for what it is, the book is generally
well-done and a welcome addition to the bookshelf. Lambert &
Woodcock did not anticipate the split of Red-bellied Pitta, but they
map all the ranges of the (then) subspecies (now species) well.
Otherwise this remains a good resource.
Obviously another a fine introduction to this family, with some fabulous photos, is in Erritzoe (2003).
Erritzoe, J. 2003. Family Pittidae (Pittas), pp. 106 –137 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D. Christie, eds). Vol. 8. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Gooddie, C. 2010. The Jewel Hunter. WildGuides, Ltd., Hampshire, U.K.
M., J.I. Ohlson, D. Zuccon, M. Källersjöand P.G.P. Ericson,
P. G. P. 2006. Nuclear DNA from old collections of avian study skins
reveals the evolutionary history of the Old World suboscines (Aves:
Passeriformes). Zoologica Scripta 35: 567–580.
M., P.-H. Fabre, H. Batalha-Filho, K.A. Jønsson, C.S. Roselaar,
G. Sangster, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2013. The spatio-temporal colonization
and diversification across the Indo-Pacific by a 'great speciator'
(Aves, Erythropitta erythrogaster). Proc. Royal Soc. B 280: 1759.
Lambert, Frank, and Martin Woodcock. 1996. Pittas, Broadbills, and Asities. Pica Press, Sussex, England.
Pratt, T.K., and B.M. Beehler. 2015. Birds of New Guinea. 2d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
Rheindt, F.E., and J.A. Eaton. 2010. Biological species limits in the Banded Pitta Pitta guajana. Forktail 26, 86-91.