Pittas are a family, Pittidae, of passerine birds mainly found in
and Australasia, although a couple of species live in Africa. Pittas are
all similar in general structure and habits, and are placed in a single
genus, Pitta. The name is derived from the word pitta in the Telugu
language of Andhra Pradesh in India and is a generic local name used for
all small birds.
Pittas are 15 to 25 centimetres in length, and stocky, with longish
strong legs and long feet. They have very short tails and stout,
slightly decurved bills. Many, but not all, are brightly coloured
These are fairly terrestrial birds of wet forest floors. They eat
snails, insects and similar invertebrate prey. Pittas are mostly
solitary and lay up to six eggs in a large spherical nest in a tree or
shrub, or sometimes on the ground. Both parents care for the young.
Many species of pittas are migratory, and they often end up in
unexpected places like house-gardens during migration.
Pittas are diurnal, requiring light in order to find their often cryptic
prey. They are nevertheless often found in darker areas and are highly
secretive, though they will respond to imitations of their calls. They
are generally found as single birds, with even young birds not
associating with their parents unless they are being fed. Small groups
have been observed during migration.
Diet and feeding
Earthworms form the major part of the diet of pittas, followed by snails
in order of importance. Earthworms may however become seasonally
unavailable in dry conditions when the worms move deeper into the soil.
In addition a wide range of invertebrate prey is eaten, including many
insects groups such as termites, ants, beetles, true bugs, and
lepidopterans; as well as centipedes, millipedes, and spiders.
Pittas feed in a thrush-like fashion, moving aside leaves with a
sweeping motion of the bill. They have also been observed to probe the
moist soil with their bills in order to locate earthworms. It has been
suggested that they are able to locate earthworms
smell; a suggestion supported by a study which found that they have the
largest olfactory bulb of 25 passerines examined. Some species will also
use tree roots and rocks as anvils on which to smash open snails in
order to eat.
Like most birds the pittas are mongamous breeders, and defend breeding
territories. Most species are seasonal breeders, timing their breeding
to occur at the onset of the rainy season. An exception to this is the
Superb Pitta, which breeds almost year round, as the island of Manus
which it breeds on remains wet all year. The courtship behaviours of the
family are poorly known, but the elaborate dance of the African Pitta
includes jumping into the air with a puffed out breast and parachuting
down back down to the perch.
The pittas build a rudimentary nest that is a dome with a side
entrance. The nest is as large as a rugby ball, and is usually well
camouflaged amongst vines or vegetation of some kind. The nests can
either be placed on the ground or in trees. Both sexes help to build the
nest, but the male does most of the work.