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The quest for the Himalayan Quail

In the lower elevations of the Western Himalayas, in mountain slopes covered by thick grass, lives a bird that has not been seen for 139 years.

A bird not seen for such a long time should have been declared extinct, but the Himalayan Quail is not just any bird.

It is the Holy Grail for birders in India—simply because it hasn’t been seen.

If it is still extant—many believe it isn’t—it is definitely the rarest member of the Galliformes family in the world.

The number 139 is interesting. It is one more than 138, the number of years for which a bird that now qualifies as the second rarest bird in India was not seen.

This is the Jerdon’s Courser, named after surgeon-naturalist Thomas C. Jerdon in 1848, but not seen again until its rediscovery in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh by Bharat Bhushan of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in 1986.

And it is one less than 140, the number of years it took to rediscover the Large-billed Reed Warbler. Seen in the Sutlej valley in Himachal Pradesh in 1867, it was not seen again till 2007, when a group of birders led by Sumit K. Sen, Bhaskar Das, and Anjan and Aranya Gupta rediscovered it near the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary in Narendrapur, near Kolkata.

  • The Jerdon’s Courser was discovered in 1848 but not seen again until its rediscovery in 1986 by Bharat Bhushan in Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Panchapakesan Jeganathan
  • The Forest Owlet, not sighted after 1884 and considered extinct, was rediscovered 113 years later in 1997 by Pamela Rasmussen in the Satpura hills. Photo: Nikhil Devasar
  • In 2004, the Rusty-throated Wren Babbler was rediscovered after 58 years by two American ornithologists in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Pranjal J. Saikia
  • The Large-billed Reed Warbler was rediscovered after 140 years near Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary, Narendrapur, near Kolkata. Photo: Sumit Sen
  • In 2006, Anwarddin Choudhury claimed to have sighted the Manipur Bush Quail, last seen in 1932, but couldn’t photograph it. Illustration: William Robert Ogilvie-Grant
  • In 2006, birder and astronomer Ramana Athreya discovered a new species of bird—the Bugun Liocichla—at the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan

Each time a bird endemic to India (i.e., only found here) is rediscovered, hopes rise that the Himalayan Quail will be, too.

This time around, these hopes would appear to be backed by science.

A new research paper, Mapping the Potential Distribution of the Critically Endangered Himalayan Quail (Ophrysia Superciliosa) using proxy species and species distribution modelling by Jonathon C. Dunn, Graeme M. Buchanan, Richard J. Cuthbert, Marj J. Whittingham and Philip J.K. McGowan, published in Bird Conservation International in February, has listed five locations where the bird could be found—Bhimleth, Khasonsi, Tyongi Pangu, Dug R.F. and Chirbitiyakhal—all in Uttarakhand.

The last time the bird was seen was in Uttarakhand in December 1876, when Major G. Carwithen shot a bird on the eastern slopes of Sher-ka-Danda near Nainital. (Tap or click on the graphic below to expand it.)

The study suggests searches be made within the surrounding grassy scrubland areas on steep slopes outside the villages. Generally, all quail species look alike and are difficult to identify in the field because of their skittish nature and the tall grass and shrubs that they inhabit. But the Himalayan Quail stands out with its red bill and legs. It has white spots in front of and behind its eyes. The male has a black face with white cheeks and eyebrows, and a slaty grey body with black streaks, while the female is rufous in colour with grey eyebrows, cheek and neck.

According to existing literature, the bird appears to be larger than a quail, somewhere between a partridge and a quail. The Himalayan Quail has a longish, broad tail in comparison to other quail species in India—another identifying feature. Literature also describes the male bird as dark olive green in colour.

In the course of history, the Himalayan Quail has also been referred by ornithologists as the Eyebrowed Quail, the Eyebrowed Rollulus, the Mountain Quail, the Slate-Coloured Partridge, the Mountain Pheasant-Quail and the Indian Mountain-Quail.

All that is known about the Himalayan Quail is from 10 specimens—seen, shot and collected between April 1836 and December 1876. One specimen has been lost and nine remain in the collections of four natural history museums—one each in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and RVNH Leiden, the Netherlands, two in the Derby Museum of Liverpool and five in the Natural History Museum, London.

There are none in India.

  • Painting of Mountain Quail Ophrysia superciliosa (1883). Artist: John Gould.
  • Colour drawings published in the WWFI Quarterly Newsletter (Rieger & Walzthöny, 1991). Drawing by Jeanne Peter based on slides from the BMNH specimens.
  • The only stuffed specimen at the RVNH, Leiden, in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy G. Mees
  • Artist: W. Foster (before 1879). From ‘Game birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon’ (1880) by Hume and Marshall.
  • Published in D.S. Ripley (1952) and S. Ali (1977). Artist: A. Seidel.

Although the way the Himalayan Quail looks is well documented from museum specimens, there is very little literature on its ecology and distribution. This dearth of knowledge has led to much debate among ornithologists about whether the bird has become extinct or still survives.

Those records that are available say the bird has a narrow altitudinal distribution range as it was seen and collected only between 1,650m and 2,100m, a stretch of 450m extending from Mussoorie, where the first specimen was collected in 1836, to Nainital, where the last confirmed specimen was seen in 1876.

The bird could be found at lower or higher elevations, and possibly in a much larger area, but wherever it occurred, it must have been uncommon even 150 years ago, according to Asad R. Rahmani, director, BNHS, and Dhananjai Mohan, chief conservator of forest wildlife, Uttarakhand, who mention this in their book Threatened Birds of Uttarakhand.

According to ornithologists Doris Walzthöny and Ingo Rieger, who embarked on an expedition to find the Himalayan Quail in 1989, the nine available specimens collected more than 100 years ago do not provide specific data on the bird. “But the available data helps to qualify some of the improbable assumptions and might help to channel future rediscovering activities into more hopeful directions,” they say.

All Himalayan Quail specimens were procured from Jharipani, Banog and Bhadraj in Mussoorie and Sher-ka-Danda in Nainital, located in the lower Western Himalayan ranges in Uttarakhand. All the birds bar one were shot during the winter months.

Since the last sighting and shooting by Carwithen in 1876, there have been reports on birders spotting the Himalayan Quail, but without any scientific proof.

Some past attempts to rediscover the species include surveys by India’s “birdman” Salim Ali in 1977, Ravi Sankaran from the BNHS in 1988 and 1990, Ingo Rieger in 1989, Tehmina Shafiq, Salim Javed and Rahul Kaul from the World Wide Fund for Nature, India, in 1998-99, with the most recent conducted by the Uttarakhand forest department through the Nainital Zoo in October 2013.

An award of Rs1 lakh has been announced by the forest department to anyone who can produce evidence of the existence of the Himalayan Quail (see poster below, tap to expand). “The search is still on and we are optimistic that someone will find the bird,” says Paramjit Singh, chief conservator of forests, Kumaon, Uttarakhand.

He referred to the rediscovery of the Jerdon’s Courser and the Forest Owlet. The latter, not sighted after 1884 and considered extinct, was rediscovered 113 years later in 1997 by American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen in the foothills of the Satpura hills, near Shahada, Maharashtra.

One school of thought suggests that the Himalayan Quail has not been rediscovered because people haven’t looked hard enough.

A 2007 report by the Wildlife Institute of India says that there has been a lack of long-term and dedicated surveys to rediscover the Himalayan Quail, which makes it difficult to pronounce this species as extinct. It is likely that this species is surviving somewhere in its historical distribution range but has not been located so far for want of dedicated survey efforts. Unconfirmed reports of sightings, recent literature reviews and field investigations have kept alive the hope that small populations may still survive in some areas in the lower or middle Himalayan range between Nainital and Mussoorie.

“It is just that we haven’t looked for it in the right areas. Its habitat around Mussoorie and Nainital may have become unsuitable due to human interference, but there will be other areas that are still largely intact. Also, similar areas to the West in Garhwal also need to be searched. The distribution of this bird couldn’t have been confined to Mussoorie and Nainital alone,” says Brigadier (retd) Ranjit Talwar, who helped Ingo Rieger look for the Himalayan Quail in 1989.

Indeed, unsubstantiated reports of sightings abound.

One bird was shot at Lohaghat in east Kumaon by American ornithologist Sidney Dillon Ripley, who co-authored Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan with Salim Ali. Ripley also reported the local name of the bird in Nepal as “Sano Kalo Titra”, which means small black partridge. Hari Dang, a schoolteacher, reportedly shot a Himalayan Quail near the Nali forest around Mussoorie in 1955. In September 1992, Colonel (retd) I.S. Negi reported that on a foggy morning while he was going to Nali to inspect plantations, he saw half-a-dozen birds that looked like the Himalayan Quail crossing the road near Suwakholi.

It was British zoologist John Edward Gray who described the Himalayan Quail to the world in his book Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall in 1846. Back then, Knowsley Park, near Liverpool, was one of the largest private menageries, founded by the 13th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley. The species illustrations were done by Edward Lear, a well-known artist, musician and poet, known for his volume of limericks—A Book of Nonsense.

Allan Octavian Hume, an ornithologist and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, wrote about the Himalayan Quail in his book The Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon, “The bird is known to occur occasionally, and during the cold season, in the neighbourhood of Mussoorie, and again in the neighbourhood of Nainital. But it is a bird of singularly retiring habits, can scarcely be induced to show itself unless pressed by a dog, and occurs only at a season when our hill stations are nearly deserted.”

According to Hume, these birds are winter migrants, some occasionally remaining till the beginning of summer. “They keep habitually in coveys of six to ten, though single pairs may occur. They frequent grass jungle and brushwood, cling pertinaciously to cover, and are scarcely to be flushed without dogs, fly slowly and heavily and soon drop again, Quail-like, into cover. They feed on grass, seeds, insects and berries. When feeding, they call to each other with a low, short, Quail-like note, their alarm note and call when separated being a shrill whistle. Their range in the Himalayas in winter is probably from five to eight thousand feet.”

There are contrasting views from veteran ornithologists on whether the Himalayan Quail is extinct or elusive. “Obviously in an area as vast as the Himalayas, with many inaccessible places, it is possible that the quails still exist somewhere. However, most of the claims in recent years have not stood up to scrutiny. Most quails have a far-carrying territorial song which should be audible over quite a distance and would be the best way to track them down. However, the only calls reported for it are a quail-like contact call and a shrill whistle when the bird is flushed. Both would require the bird to be in close proximity to man or dog,” says Bill Harvey, author and ornithologist.

Harkirat Sangha, another ornithologist, has a counter view: “Having travelled quite extensively in the Western Himalayas, I am inclined to believe that the species is gone as the suitable habitat is hardly there. About 10 years ago, there was a sensational news about its sighting near Corbett and I went in search of it, but gave up on the second day. It is not an easy bird to search (for), especially in the grassland in the Himalayas. Quails need to be flushed.”

But Brigadier Talwar begs to differ, “Unless man discovered the Himalayan Quail at a time when it was already on the verge of extinction due to natural causes, the species is unlikely to have perished. Its natural habitat is still reasonably intact and the bird has certainly not been over-hunted. Logic, therefore, forces one to believe that this extremely shy bird, though not seen since 1876, is still alive somewhere in the lower Himalayas, where suitable conditions still exist.”

In 1977, Salim Ali, during his Himalayan Quail survey, noted that the habitat requirements of the species were similar to the Cheer Pheasant—steep mountain slopes, tall grass and bush made it extremely difficult to spot these small birds.

In 1992, ornithologist Rahul Kaul, an expert on pheasants and director of conservation in the Wild Species programmes of the Wildlife Trust of India, drew a comparison between the Cheer Pheasant and the Himalayan Quail, based on the habitat descriptions of the two species, which appeared to be quite similar in literature.

Kaul was of the opinion that the habitat of steep and scrubby slopes, interspersed with precipitous cliffs between 1,000m and 3,000m in altitude, will confine the distribution of both these species. As open grassy and scrubby areas do not form large contiguous tracts in the Western Himalayas, the Cheer Pheasant has always been patchily distributed across its range, with populations limited by the availability of suitable habitat. If the Himalayan Quail was a bird of such specialized habitat, and given that such areas are not very extant, most populations were probably small and vulnerable to local extinctions.

The February study by Dunn et al. compares the habitats of the Cheer Pheasant and the Himalayan Monal to shortlist the five sites where the Mountain Quail may exist.

But due to the increasing human population in the Western Himalayas, most of the grasslands have been converted into cultivation fields. A drastic change in land-use patterns over the last century has altered much of the lower Himalayan landscape. Nainital and Mussoorie are no longer the quaint hill stations they once were. The locations where the Himalayan Quail were shot over a century ago look very different now, both in terms of vegetation and human settlements.

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