(1892) Pterocles alchata caudacutus (Gmelin).
THE PERSIAN LARGE PIN-TAILED SAND-GROUSE.
Pterocles alchata caudacutus, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed., vol. v, p. 288.
This fine Sand-Grouse is found in enormous numbers in India in the North-West Trans-Indus country and again between the Indus and the Chenab ; it occurs in the Punjab as far as the Beas and the Ga7,a as far East as Ludhiana and Delhi, and South it has been obtained as far as Sambhur, Jodhpore, Bikanir and Deesa.
Outside India it ranges from Abyssinia and Nubia and the South Russian Steppes to Afghanistan and Baluchistan.
It has never been discovered breeding in India, but must surely do so sometimes, if not regularly. Bogle found it in pairs in Pesha¬war and shot a female in June with an egg ready for expulsion, and it also possibly breeds in the Quetta district. At the same time we have no places in India which resemble the huge mud-flats on which this Sand-Grouse brseds in such thousands in Mesopotamia. Pitman, when advancing on Kut-el-Amara in June and July, refers to one of the baiting places as “one huge breeding ground,” the birds not selecting the barest places like the Spotted Sand-Grouse, but making the scrapes for their eggs on places growing grass, thin vetch or the Polygonum, the seeds of which form their staple food. Vast multitudes breed in the same area, many nests being within a few yards of one another, placed without regard to any special shelter. Many millions of pairs must breed in the Tigris Valley, for day after day the troops were passing through breeding country in which the birds literally swarmed.
In Mesopotamia they bred from early May to the middle of July, but most birds laid in the last week of May and the first two of June.
Three eggs are generally laid, but sometimes two only.
I described the eggs in the ‘Fauna’ as follows :—They are the boldest and most richly marked of all Sand-Grouse eggs. In ground¬colour they vary from a pale cream or yellowish-stone to a bright warm buff or salmon-pink. The primary markings consist of bold blotches and a few specks of vandyke-brown or deep red with light grey or neutral-tint secondary markings. These are numerous and generally distributed all over the surface, in a few eggs being more numerous at the larger end. In shape they are nearly true ellipses." One hundred eggs average 45.0 x 30.4 mm. : maxima 49.9 x 29.9 and 40.1 x 33.3 mm. ; minima 39.6 x 28.3 and 46.1 x 28.0 nun.’’
Both birds incubate, and probably the male docs more of this work than the female. Both sexes also help to scratch opt hollows in the ground but, as the birds do this constantly when resting, dusting etc., it is possible that only the female prepares the scrape in which the eggs are laid.
Most interesting accounts have been written of the manner in which Sand-Grouse give their young drink, and it is obvious that the same method serves to damp the eggs from time to time through¬out incubation, an act essential to their successful hatching.
Meade-Waldo was the first to observe this and, as it is a character¬istic of all Sand-Grouse and apphes equally to all our Indian birds, I deal fully with it here.
In 1896 (‘Zoologist,’ p. 299) Meade-Waldo gave an account of the breeding of P. alchata in confinement, and describes how the male, after the young were hatched, Would “rub his breast violently up and down on the ground, a motion quite distinct from dusting, and when his feathers Were all awry would get into his drinking water and saturate the feathers of his underparts. When soaked he would go through the motions of flying away, nodding his head etc. Then, remembering that his family was close by, would run up to the hen, make a demonstration, when the young would run out, get under him, and suck the water from his breast.”
Later (Avicultural Mag. 1906, p. 219) Meade-Waldo gave a further account of this procedure, which is so interesting that I quote it in full :—“Incubation lasts from 21 to 23 days, the hen sits by day, the cock taking her place by night, usually going on the eggs about 5 P.M. Both parents brood the young when they are very small,
“The extraordinary method employed by the parent male Sand Grouse of conveying water to their young by saturating the feathers of the breast was first described by me in 1896, and since by Mr. St. Quintin in his interesting account of the successful rearing of P. exustus. I have had the good fortune to see t he males of P. arena¬rius and P. alchata getting water for their young in a wild state, but had I not seen it administered in confinement would have con¬sidered them demented birds trying to dust in mud and water.
“In very waterless places this method of procuring water must be most precarious, for I saw P. arenarius waiting by the wells and going to the muddy spot where the skins used to be laid before being loaded on to the camels, and where the water was slopped over from the troughs when the animals drank. I also saw them fly over the prickly Zareba surrounding the tent-villages and go to where there was a soft spot for the same purpose. I, did (? not) see P. alchatus actually soaking themselves, but I repeatedly saw cocks pass over, their white breasts soaked in mud and water.” Pitman also made some useful notes on their habits and writes to me :—“About the question you ask me as to P. a. caudacutus giving their young ones drink during the breeding season. I often tried to watch the young ones when newly batched and when older, but had no luck, and never saw them, drinking as Meade Waldo describes. On the other hand, I have succeeded in rearing a large number of the chicks, and I found them to be very thirsty little creatures, drinking greedily more than once in a day when they get the chance. I have watched this Sand-Grouse drinking in their thousands in June and July, and I have noticed the birds go right out into the water and thoroughly soak the whole of their body-plumage underneath, so much so that it is perfectly noticeable when the birds are on the wing flying back from watering, as their breasts and bodies are bedraggled and muddy.”
It should be noted, however, that for a great part of the time Pitman saw this performance going on the birds had eggs which had not hatched, so that the Wetting of the breast would have served to damp the eggs, although not required to water the young.
Thornhill and Macgrath also refer to this habit of the birds in Mesopotamia. The latter says that he noticed the birds when drinking sometimes settled on the water, a pair so settling on the Tigris in front of him, and he remarks that “when on the water they floated high and looked like Gulls.”
1892. Pterocles alchata caudacutus
(1892) Pterocles alchata caudacutus (Gmelin).