Goodbye, Gurney's pitta

Southern Thailand is home to one of the world's rarest bird species, but authorities must act now to save it from extinction

From May to October every year, the Gurney's pitta (Pitta gurneyi), one of Thailand's protected wild animals, have their breeding season. Their last remaining habitat in the Kingdom is a small fragment of the last lowland tropical forest in southern Thailand, near the boundary of Khao Pra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary in Tambon Klong Thom Nua, Khlong Thom district, Krabi.

The site is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and arguably the most important one on the peninsula, supporting the richest lowland forest birdlife in Thailand.

Known in Thai as nok taew laew thong dam, Gurney's pitta is an endemic species of Thailand and Myanmar. And Krabi province is popular with naturalists and birdwatchers worldwide wanting to see this species. The Myanmar population was larger in Tanintharyi region in the south of the country but its numbers are decreasing.

The forest area has been cleared for rubber and palm oil plantations and Myanmar has a much less developed nature conservation programme than Thailand. Rated as one of the most-wanted, the birds can be seen in Thailand with relatively little difficulty. Travel in Thailand is also convenient and safer.

Gurney's pitta was first identified in 1875 in Myanmar, with sightings being regularly reported and birds collected through to the 1920s. It was last scientifically reported in 1952 and, with no subsequent sightings, it was concluded in the BBC's 1985 year-end report that "it is highly possible that Gurney's pitta is extinct in the world".

However, after four years of searching, on the June 14, 1986, the species was rediscovered by Philip D Round and Uthai Treesucon. They found a small population in the lowland forest near Ban Bang Tieo, Khao Nor Chuchi, Khlong Thom district, Krabi _ now Khao Pra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary.

"What could we do to conserve this bird species in Thailand and for the world? We want all Thai people to realise that driving other species to extinction is the worst possible thing," said Uthai Treesucon. "Extinction means a species is lost completely."

Round, Treesucon and co-workers from Birdlife International found a total of 40 pairs of birds from 1986-1988. Despite the fact that the area has been designated a wildlife sanctuary and the introduction of other conservation initiatives, some influential people continued to encroach on the area to make way for rubber and oil palm plantations.

The Royal Forest Department (RFD), the Department of National Parks (DNP) and Krabi provincial administration have been able to halt the destruction and a little of the lowland forest remains. It is estimated that there may be as few as 13 individuals (perhaps only four to five breeding pairs) now surviving.

Gurney's pitta is small, ground-living bird, about the size of a myna but with a shorter tail. The male is a gorgeously patterned living jewel, with a black face and sides of head, bright iridescent blue hind-crown and nape and startlingly deep yellow and black underparts. The female is more soberly coloured with a duller ochraceous-yellow crown, a blackish-brown eye patch and barred underparts.

Gurney's pitta feed mainly on insects that live on the forest floor. They occasionally take frogs and other small amphibians. They feed their young almost exclusively on earthworms, which are easier to find in the rainy season when they breed. Their journey to extinction seems more and more inevitable, crystallised most recently in April with photos showing a female Gurney's pitta paired with a male Malayan banded pitta (Pitta irena). This demonstrates that the number of Gurney's pitta in the wild is now so low that, with a biased sex ratio, a female bird was forced to pair with a male of a related species. Furthermore, destruction of the forest is now so severe that its fragmented nature may be stopping birds from travelling to find mates and breed. And this female is the only Gurney's pitta found in 11 months of observation by local birdwatchers.

This finding implies that for the 2013 breeding season, a maximum of only four female birds will pair up. Following research by DNP during 2003-2007, nesting success was determined to be only 37.5%. If there were human activities in the area this consequently would lead to 100% nest abandonment. Chick survival rates were only 8.3%, equating to only 0.25 chicks reared per nest.

Using this as a base for positive thinking and rough calculation, an optimistic outcome for 2013 would be just one addition to the population at best. If that bird is female then that will further skew the population sex ratio but, even if the bird were female, a favourable outcome will only occur if it pairs with a male of the same species. Another worry is that young Gurney's pitta that fledge are unlikely to survive as there is no habitat left for them.

The main factors that threaten the species are the destruction of their natural habitats from agriculture, lack of awareness and support from local communities, plus industry and tourism. Wildlife hunting will also have an impact.

Unfortunately, these problems have never been seriously addressed by the authorities, neither at a national nor local level. Gurney's pitta, however, can be saved if the DNP acts immediately.


To help support the Gurney's pitta conservation project, join the Long Tail Long Life project at www.facebook.com/bcst.or.th?filter=3 or visit www.bcst.or.th/?page id==31.

About the author

Writer: The Bird Conservation Society Of Thailand