1902 Encyclopedia > Pitta


PITTA, in Ornithology, from the Telegu Pitta, meaning a small Bird, Latinized by Vieillot in 1816 (Analyse, p. 42) as the name of a genus, and since adopted by English ornithologists as the general name for a group of Birds, called by the French Breves, and remarkable for their great beauty. For a long while the Pittas were commonly supposed to be allied to the Turdidee, and some English writers applied to them the name of " Water-Thrushes " and "Ant-Thrushes," though there was no evidence of their having aquatic habits or predilections, or of their preying especially upon ants; but the fact that they formed a separate Family was gradually admitted. Their position was at last determined by Garrod, who, having obtained examples for dissection, in a communication to the Zoo-logical Society of London, printed in its Proceedings for 1876, proved (pp. 512, 513) that the Pittidx belonged to that section of Passerine Birds which he named Mesomyodi (ORNITHOLOGY, vol. xviii. p. 41), since their syrinx, like that of the Tyrannidx (KING-BIRD, vol. xiv. p. 80), has its muscles attached to the middle of its half-rings, instead of to their extremities as in the higher Passerines or Acromyodi. This in itself was an unexpected determina-tion, for such a structure had been thought to be confined to Birds of the New World, to which none of the Pittas belong. But it is borne out by, and may even serve to explain, the sporadic distribution of the latter, which seems to point them out as survivors of a somewhat ancient and lower type of Passeres. Indeed except on some theory of this kind the distribution of the Pittas is almost unaccountable. They form a very homogeneous

Pitta elegans, male and female.

Family, not to say genus, which it is not easy to split up justifiably, for all its members bear an unmistakable and close resemblance to each other—though the species inhabit countries so far apart as Angola and China, India and Australia; and, to judge from the little that has been recorded, they are all of terrestrial habit, while their power of flight, owing to their short wings, is feeble. Nearly fifty species have now been described, most of them found in the Malay Archipelago, between the eastern and western divisions of which they are pretty equally divided; and, in Mr Wallace's opinion, they attain their maximum of beauty and variety in Borneo and Sumatra, from the latter of which islands comes the species, Pitta elegans, represented in the accompanying woodcut. Few Birds can vie with the Pittas in brightly-contrasted coloration. Deep velvety black, pure white, and intensely vivid scarlet, turquoise-blue and beryl-green—mostly occupying a considerable extent of surface—are found in a great many of the species,—to say nothing of other composite or inter-mediate hues; and, though in some a modification of these tints is observable, there is scarcely a trace of any blend-ing of shade, each patch of colour standing out distinctly.
This is perhaps the more remarkable as the feathers have hardly any lustre to heighten the effect produced, and in some species the brightest colours are exhibited by the plumage of the lower parts of the body. Pittas vary in size from that of a Jay to that of a Lark, and generally have a strong bill, a thickset form, which is mounted on rather high legs with scutellated " tarsi," and a very short tail. In many of the forms there is little or no external difference between the sexes. All the species then known were figured in Mr Elliot's Monograph of the Pittidx, com-pleted in 1863 ; but so many have since been described that this work but imperfectly represents the existing know-ledge of the Family, and even Schlegel's revised catalogue of the specimens contained in the Leyden Museum (Mus. des Pays-Pas, livr. 11), published in 1874, is now out of date, so that a new synopsis is very desirable. Many of the lately-discovered species have been figured in Gould's Birds of Asia and Birds of New Guinea.

Placed by some authorities among the Pittidx is the genus Philepitta, consisting of two species peculiar to Madagascar, while other systematists would consider it to form a distinct Family. This last is the conclusion arrived at by W. A. Forbes (Proc. Zool Society, 1880, pp. 387-391) from its syringeal characters, which, though shewing it to be allied to the Pittas, are yet sufficiently different to justify its separation as the type of a Family Philepittidx. The two species which compose it have little outward resemblance to the Pittas, not having the same style of coloration and being apparently of more arboreal habits. The sexes differ greatly in plumage, and the males have the skin round the eyes bare of feathers and carunculated.

It may be advisable to remark that nomenclatorial purists, objecting to the names Pitta and Philepitta as "barbarous," call the former Coloburis and the latter Paictes. Brachyurus also has frequently been used for Pitta; but, having been previously applied in another sense, it is inadmissible. (A. N.)


In Ornithology the word is first found as part of the native name, "Pon-nunky pitta," of a Bird, given in 1713 by Petiver, in the " Mantissa " to Ray's Synopsis (p. 195), on the authority of Buckley (see ORNITHOLOGY, vol. xviii. p. 5, note 1). This bird is the Pitta bmgalensis of modern ornithologists, and is said by Jerdon {Birds of India, i. p. 503) now to bear the Telegu name of Pona-inki.

Owing to recent discoveries in Papuasia it is possible that this opinion may require some modification.

The above article was written by: Prof. Alfred Newton.

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