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India pitta bird accidentally found in China for first time

Sichuan residents discover carcass of species usually seen in South Asia

By CHEN LIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-28 09:38
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A photo of a taxidermied India pitta made from a carcass found in Tianquan county, Sichuan province, last year stands in a forest. CHINA DAILY

In the depths of the tropical and subtropical forests in Asia, Australasia and Africa, there resides a unique group of birds.

Adorned with resplendent, colorful plumage, pittas are a highly secretive avian family of mostly nonmigratory species. They have been considered by many ornithologists and bird watchers as precious gems amidst the dim, dense woods, earning them the colloquial name "jewel-thrush".

Taxonomically, pittas belong to the Passeriformes order and the Pittidae family. Among the most beautiful birds in the world, most of the pitta species are shy by nature and elusive in their movements, and many species have narrow distributions and low populations, making them a sought-after target for numerous bird enthusiasts.

On the morning of June 15, an unexpected discovery was made when some residents stumbled upon the lifeless body of an unknown bird in the urban center of Tianquan county in Ya'an city, Sichuan province.

It was sent to the local forestry authorities, who then sought the expertise of Dr Que Pinjia, an ornithologist from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and the Sichuan Key Laboratory of Conservation Biology for Endangered Wildlife, to aid in identifying the deceased bird. Upon examining its morphological features, Que tentatively identified it as an Indian pitta (Pitta brachyura), a bird that had never been recorded in the country.

Further molecular biological analyses confirmed its taxonomic status. "It was truly a big surprise for us," Que said.

Since the bird's flight and tail feathers were intact, showing no obvious signs of artificial captivity, Que said the possibility of an escape was effectively ruled out. Consequently, the research team concluded that the appearance of the Indian pitta in Tianquan, Sichuan, marked the first recorded instance of this species within China, adding a "jewel" to the country's avian family.

He and five other researchers published the discovery in the January issue of Chinese Journal of Zoology, a science magazine of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an article titled "A New Bird Record in China: India Pitta".

Previous records in China documented sightings of eight pitta species, all of which have been put under State second-class protection due to their relatively scarce populations, said Que, who is the article's first author.

Aside from the fairy pitta, the other seven species have extremely narrow distributions within China, sporadically recorded in select locations near the southern border regions such as Hainan province, southern Yunnan province, and southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, with very few records inland. "It further emphasizes the unexpected nature of the discovery," Que said.

According to the researcher, the Indian pitta is mainly distributed on the Indian subcontinent, ranging from Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. The distance between its nearest recorded location and Tianquan exceeds 1,000 kilometers, separated by grand mountain ranges from north to south.

"The origins of this bird have truly raised our curiosity," said professor Liu Yang from the School of Ecology at Sun Yat-sen University in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, a co-author of the study.

Liu said that similar instances include the records of bay-backed shrike (Lanius vittatus) and rusty-tailed flycatcher (Ficedula ruficauda) in Sichuan.

Both of these bird species are typically found in South Asia.

"Their appearance in Sichuan seems like an anomaly in the middle of nowhere," Liu said, adding that it seems like there's a "wormhole" between the bird's natural habitat and China.

While reasonable speculations can be made, Que said, a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms behind these phenomena is dependent on the accumulation of more foundational information on bird distribution and migration, coupled with the application of various technological methods to conduct integrated research.

There are 44 species of pittas in the world. They are mostly found in forests, but some live in scrub and mangroves. They are highly terrestrial and mostly solitary, and usually forage on wet forest floors in areas with good ground cover.

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