The Fairy Pitta is a magic wand for Asian conservationists using the bird’s beauty to help establish preserves on islands off Hong Kong and South Korea.
By Rex Graham
“Pitta mania” sweeps through the Malaysian Nature Society after the long-legged, stub-tailed bird arrives in Borneo in October for a roughly 6-month winter stay. Enthusiasm triggered by the migrants adds to birders’ joy when they spot Borneo’s 3 endemic Pittas: the Black-headed Pitta, Blue-headed Pitta and Blue-banded Pitta. A total of 9 Pitta species can be found on Borneo, but birding tour companies focus on Taiwan, which has the most East Asian birds in a small place.
What makes these small birds so special?
Like most Pittas, the Fairy is secretive. Avid birders find it hopping through the undergrowth of moist, undisturbed lowland and foothill forests and bamboo groves. During the breeding season from May to July in Taiwan, China, southern Japan and South Korea they use a “kwah-he-wwa-wu” whistle to discourage neighboring Pittas from trespassing. Some over-eager photographers play recordings of the whistle to lure the birds into view, interrupting their breeding activities.
The paparazzi have an appealing target. The boldly colored and patterned Fairy Pitta is gorgeous. Its seekers are often rewarded with views of the other beautiful Pitta species. The 30 members of the Pittidae Family are scattered in habitats of varying size from Equatorial Africa and southern Japan and South Korea to most of southern Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia to northern Australia.
Hwang Mei-hsiu, “Taiwan’s Jane Goodall,” is frustrated that the endangered Formosa Black Bear (Taiwan’s “most representative wildlife species”) doesn’t come close to engendering the public support in her country as the Fairy Pitta or Green Sea Turtle.
However, the Fairy Pitta is struggling, too for a variety of reasons: timber clearance, expanding agriculture, hunting in China, trapping in Taiwan for the cage-bird trade and degradation and fragmentation of remaining forests throughout its range.
Taiwanese conservationists have recently curtailed cage-bird trappers and stopped a gravel quarry development. However, the bears struggle on in obscurity in secluded mountain forests. “We should do something quickly and urgently to turn around the bear’s prospects,” Mei-hsiu said in an interview quoted by the Taipei Times.
Fairy Tale Ending
Videotaping studies have revealed the Fairy Pitta to be an extraordinarily efficient worm hunter along Taiwan’s slopes below 1,300 m (4,265 ft) in elevation. About 6 wiggling earthworms hang from the bill of a bird in one video. When conditions are moist, nestlings fatten up almost entirely on the nutritious, easy-to-digest worms. Other invertebrates are added to the menu as nestlings approach fledging and during dry weather.
BirdLife International estimated a total Fairy Pitta population of a few thousand or tens of thousands and “declining rapidly.” In addition to human activities, the birds are eaten by Peregrine Falcons, Large-billed Crows, Eurasian Magpies and the Steppe Rat Snake.
Migration is hazardous, too. Birds collide with buildings’ windows that reflect images of trees, other man-made structures and vehicles. The locations of dead birds found by citizen scientists suggests that the Pittas use at least 2 migration routes to their wintering grounds in Borneo and as far south as Australia.
A growing number of organizations, including the Jeju Wildlife Research Centre, Korea Association for Bird Protection, Malaysian Nature Society, BirdLife International and academic researchers in Asia and Australia are collaborating to understand the best ways to protect Pitta habitats and migration stopovers.
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, protect and study Fairy Pittas, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.