Large PINTAILED Sand-grouse.
El Guett'ha, Arabic.
Nobody seems to know any special native name for this sand-grouse, which is curious, seeing that for distinctness and beauty of plumage it stands apart, and is one of our three species which are as large as pigeons. Prom the other two, the Tibetan and the black-bellied, it is easily distinguished; its belly is white, not black, as in the latter, and though the Tibetan sand-grouse has also a white belly, its toes, feathered as well as the legs, distinguish it. Moreover, the present bird has, above the white belly, a black band clearly marking off the buff breast. These points, and the long pin feathers in the tail, are common to both sexes, but otherwise they differ ; the hen has the usual black-pencilled buff upper plumage of hen sand-grouse, and the cock's upper plumage is a beautiful mixture of subdued olive-green and soft yellow, the former colour predominating. He has a black throat and a black necklace a little way below this, defining the top of the buff breast from the lighter buff of the neck. The hen has also a necklace here, but it is double in her. Both have a beautiful variegated patch on the wing near the pinion-joint, formed by white-edged feathers, their ground-colour being chocolate in the cock and black in the hen.
It may be that the very local occurrence of this exquisitely beautiful, and, where it occurs, very abundant bird, have prevented it getting a distinct appellation in our Indian tongues ; it is only at all common in Northern and Central Sind and the Punjab, and only a winter visitor there, but it has strayed to Delhi and been obtained in Rajputana. It leaves for the north early in April at latest ; its range is very wide, and it must be one of the most abundant of the family, being found not only in South-western and Central Asia, but being represented in Southern Europe and North Africa by what can hardly be called a distinct species, though it can just be separated as a local race, the so-called P. pyrenaicus.
When with us it is in enormous flocks; they were, says Hume, in tens of thousands on a vast plain some miles from Hoti Mardan, the only place where he had had a chance of observing them; here they only frequented the bare and fallow land, though cultivated ground was at hand, and were very wary, requiring to be stalked by way of nullahs or ravines. Their flight seemed to him even more powerful than that of other sand-grouse, and the note, uttered freely either on the ground or on the wing, was, although rather like that of the black-bellied species, still quite distinct from that of any other. Dresser renders it as Kaat Kaat ka, and Blanford calls it a loud clanging cry. The food is leaves, seeds, small pulse and grain, and plenty of gravel is taken.
This is one of the species the male of which has been actually observed to soak its breast to water its young, as recorded by Mr. E. G.. Meade-Waldo, the first to discover this unique habit in 1895. He says, in the Avicultural Magazine (1905-1906), " I have had the good fortune to see the males of Pterocles arenarius, the black-breasted sand-grouse, and Pterocles alchatus, the greater pintailed sand-grouse, getting water for their young in the wild state, but, had I not seen it administered in confinement, would have considered them to have been demented birds trying to dust in mud and water, when unlimited dusting ground surrounded them on every side." He appears not to have seen the actual act of soaking by the present species, but saw the cocks pass over with their white breasts soaked in mud and water, and he has often bred this bird (the western form) in confinement, his old hen, the mother of many broods, having died at the advanced age of nearly 20 years.