pitta

Definition of pitta (in Merriam Webster)

1 capitalized : a large genus (the type of the family Pittidae) of chiefly terrestrial nearly songless birds that are found principally in the southern part of Asia and in Australia and adjacent islands and that have short wings and tail, long legs, a stout bill, and brilliant plumage marked by sharply contrasting colors
2 plural -s : any bird of the genus Pitta

Origin and etymology: from Telugu piṭṭa bird

Definition of pitta (in Oxford)

NOUN

A small ground-dwelling thrush-like bird with brightly coloured plumage and a very short tail, found in the Old World tropics.
Origin Mid 19th century: from Telugu piṭṭa ‘(young) bird’.

This is a widely used word of the Telugu language, used to refer to small birds. However, few Telugus would be familiar with its occurrence in English. Pittas (the plural form) constitute an entire family of songbirds, the Pittidae, ranging through the Old World tropics, over Africa, Asia and Australia. They are of average size, brightly coloured and short tailed, living on the forest floor where they hunt their invertebrate prey.

The first species to be scientifically categorized was the Indian Pitta, Pitta brachyura, in 1766. This classification was carried out by the legendary Swedish taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, in his ‘Systema Naturae’. But there was a mess-up, with the little bird being placed alongside the crow, in the family Corvidae with a most unseemly nomenclature – Corvus brachyura. It was the French ornithologist, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, who first thought of placing the pittas in a family all of their own.

As of today, the Pittidae are split into three genera – the Erythropitta (of Australia and Southeast Asia), the Hydrornis (of Southeast Asia) and the Pitta (found from Africa to Australia). They are comparatively obscure creatures despite many species having strikingly brilliant plumage. Denizens of forests, these poorly studied birds are reluctant fliers, preferring to hop across the leaf litter. Their secretive behaviour and dark, poorly lit forest floor habitat provides protection from predators. This where they obtain their food – earthworms, snails, termites, ants, beetles, centipedes, spiders, crabs, frogs and lizards.

The rapid destruction of their habitats by human beings, coupled by a demand for the more beautifully adorned species in the pet trade has had an impact on their numbers. One species, the Gurney’s Pitta (Hydrornis gurneyi) of Myanmar, Thailand and peninsular Malaysia was even thought of as being extinct until it was rediscovered in  1986. Only a few breeding pairs survive in the wild. The Blue Headed Pitta (Hydrornis baudii), endemic to Borneo is vulnerable on account of the island’s rampant deforestation.

Image Attribution: The image above was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an illustration of the Whiskered Pitta (Erythropitta kochi), a species endemic to the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The painting was executed by the Dutch illustrator Joseph Smit in 1878 as part of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.

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