SANDGROUSE Pteroclidae
The Sandgrouse are a unique set of birds found only in Africa and Eurasia. The relationship of these birds to other groups has been one of the most hotly debated issues over a period of centuries. They are primarily ground-feeding birds of deserts, scrub, and grasslands, recalling small long-winged grouse -- indeed, Linnaeus originally assigned them to the same genus as European grouse. All of them do have feathered tarsi as can be seen in this photo of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (left) of North Africa and the Middle East, one of the most desert-loving of all species. Its beautifully patterned upperparts provide fine camouflage amongst its pink & white rocky habitat.
But sandgrouse share several attributes of pigeons, including their long wings and the practice of making long flights daily between breeding or feeding grounds, and pools of water at which they drink. This pair of Madagascar Sandgrouse (right) are engaged in such a long-distance flight, well above the ground and set off against a glooming sky. Some of their plumage and musculature is pigeon-like, but in 1867 Thomas Huxley reviewed their skeletons and came to the conclusion they were "perfectly balanced" between grouse and pigeons, and assigned them to their own distinctive order, the "Pteroclomorphae." Over time, however, the idea they were related to grouse at all was slowly dropped and by the mid-20th century many placed them as a suborder among the pigeons.

This all changed in 1967 when G. L. Maclean proposed a relationship between sandgrouse and shorebirds, based primarily on field observations. The fact they do not drink like pigeons, they don't give cooing sounds, they don't build stick nests, that their eggs were pigmented (not white) and that the young can immediately fend for themselves are all reasons they aren't that close to pigeons. More recently, DNA and other biochemical evidence confirms a closer relationship to waders in the Charadriformes. But the birds are still quite unusual, and de Juana (1997) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series places them in their own order -- the Pterocliformes -- between the waders and the pigeons.

Whatever their relationships, all are closely related to each other and all but two are considered to be within a single genus Pterocles. Two African examples are the Double-banded Sandgrouse of south Africa (above left) and the Black-faced Sandgrouse of east Africa (above right; a fine shot by Dale & Marian Zimmerman as my own photos of this bird don't come close to matching theirs).

One special feature of sandgrouse is their long flights to water holes in desert and semi-desert country where not only do they drink, but during breeding they wet their belly feathers to carry water to the chicks. The male's belly feathers are specially adapted to hold up to 15-20 ml of water. The nests may be over 25 miles distant, and it may take several trips, but adults carry enough water back to their chicks so that they survive (more details in de Juana 1997). By far the best way to see sandgrouse is to await their arrival at waterholes. Here Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse are flying in (left) and then landing in flocks beside East African pools (below). The flocking behavior helps them avoid predation because not only are individuals in a flock more difficult for a predator to catch, but because some members can always be on the lookout for danger while others drink. The Burchell's Sandgrouse P. burchelli in the Kalahari desert has been known to fly over 100 miles each day to water.

It is a coincidence that I've photographed all six sandgrouse that I've seen so far, but all are members of the genus Pterocles. There are two species in the genus Syrrhaptes that live from the Tibetan plateau to Mongolia. One of them, the Pallas's Sandgrouse S. paradoxus, stages irregular irruptions that spin off vagrants far from these remote steppes. Irruptions in 1863, 1888, and 1908 sent some birds all the way to western Europe!

Photos: The Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse Pterocles lichtensteinii was photographed in Samburu Nat'l Park, northern Kenya, on 15 Nov 1981. The pair of flying Madagascar Sandgrouse P. personatus was were near Berenty, Madagascar, on 18 Nov 1992. The Double-banded Sandgrouse P. bicinctus was crossing a road in Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, on 31 July 1996. Dale & Marian Zimmerman photographed the Black-faced Sandgrouse P. decoratus in Samburu Nat'l Park, Kenya, in July 1979. Both photos of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse P. exustus were taken in Amboselli Nat'l Park, Kenya, in Nov 1992 All photos © 2000 Don Roberson except the one attributed to Dale & Marian Zimmerman who hold that copyright (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

There is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to this family, with lots of spectacular photos, is in de Juana (1997).

Other literature cited:

de Juana, E. 1997. Family Pteroclidae (Sandgrouse), pp. 30-59 in del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, & J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 4. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
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