Sri Lanka's endemic birds
(This is the first article on the variety of birds found in different parts of the island. Today I have written on endemic birds. Later I will deal with other aspects of our birds)
ENDEMIC BIRD SPECIES: Sri Lanka has recorded 436 species of birds. They can be separated into two types - resident birds ie birds that live in this country throughout and migrant birds i.e. birds that come here for a specific period and go back to where they came from after a few months.
Of the birds that are resident here, some are endemic. Endemic to Sri Lanka means that these species are found only in Sri Lanka and nowhere else in the world.
A species can be endemic to a particular region, area or country. If an endemic species dies out, they cannot be replaced from anywhere. This article deals with the endemic birds found in Sri Lanka.
All living things known to science have been given scientific names. This is how a species is identified wherever it may be. For instance, the Spotted Deer found in Sri Lanka is known scientifically as Axis axis. Common names are used in particular locations.
In India, this deer is commonly called the Chital but since it has the same scientific name we know that when we talk of the Chital or Spotted Deer we are talking of the same species Axis axis. Scientific names can never be changed but common names can.
For instance what was called the Hawk Eagle is now called the Changeable Hawk Eagle. This can lead to confusion between the older and newer generations of naturalists.
Then the Rufous Babbler is also called the Orange-billed Babbler and the Ceylon Jungle Babbler. With three common names adduced to it, the importance of a scientific name that is not changeable, becomes very important to correctly identify this bird.
A species is the grouping by which taxonomists classify the different living organisms. In biology, a species is the basic unit that makes up the biodiversity (diverse biological species) of an area.
A species is where animals which look similar are placed as members of the same species. A species is also a reproductive unit where organisms can interbreed in nature to produce offspring that in turn can breed.
Sri Lanka has a varying number of endemic birds. Based on set criteria, taxonomists determine whether certain species and sub species of birds are confined only to a particular area.
If so, they are deemed to be endemic to that area. With the scientific advances that have been made now, DNA can be used to determine differences between species.
To the layman however, due to the number of endemic birds in Sri Lanka varying often, the taxonomists seem to be playing a game. More so because there are ceaseless arguments regarding the status of various birds.
However, such scientific classifications are necessary for many reasons, especially conservation. Early authors refer to a race or species as being 'peculiar to Ceylon'. This is the same as endemic. It was only later that the word endemic came into use.
The first major work on the birds of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was by Captain Vincent Legge in 1878. He concluded then that there were 47 endemic species of birds in this country. At that time he did not have recourse to the developed scientific methods that now help to identify endemic birds.
James Murray in his book a decade later mentions 41 species being peculiar to the island. W.W. A. Phillips in his 1952 Revised Checklist of the Birds of Ceylon refers to 21 endemic species. W. E. Wait in his Manual of the Birds of Ceylon refers to 18 species as being peculiar to Ceylon. Twelve years ago Prof. Sarath Kotagama in his Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka, written with Prithiviraj Fernando, says that we have 23 endemic species.
Now Pamela Rasmussen, a leading authority on Asian birds, says that we have 33 endemic species in Sri Lanka. Though this may be confusing to the amateur bird watcher, it is necessary that we heed changes made scientifically.
The birds listed as endemic to Sri Lanka are found in different parts of the island. Sri Lanka's national bird the Ceylon Jungle Fowl (Gallus lafayetti) is widely spread throughout the island. It is known in Sinhala as Wali Kukula and Katu Koli in Tamil.
The male is a very pretty bird but the female is drab. The Ceylon Jungle Fowl is believed to be the progenitor of all domestic fowls.
The male of the Ceylon Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarta), like the male jungle fowl, is a very pretty bird. The females of both species are drab. The Spur fowl gets its name from the two spurs on the legs of the male. The female has one spur. Known in Sinhala as the Haban Kukula and in Tamil as Katu Koli.
It is found only in the Southern part of the island even in the highest hills but preferring the wet zone forests. It comes out in the early mornings to the fringe of the forests bordering tea estates to feed. When disturbed it rarely flies preferring to dart along into the undergrowth.
Both the Jungle Fowl and the Spurfowl are arboreal birds flying only when it is necessary and to roost at night. They also have almost the same diet of small fruits, berries, termites and other insects, which they find on the forest floor.
The Jungle fowl is seen regularly in forest areas and also in small patches of forests. The Spur fowl is rarely seen since it is a shy bird.
Amongst the endemic birds in Sri Lanka there are two species of parrots. One is the Layard's Parakeet (Psittacula calthropae) and the unusual Ceylon Lorikeet (Loriculus beryllinus).
It is unusual in the sense that it is a small parrot, being the size of a house sparrow, is capable of hanging upside down and consumes nectar amongst fruits, seeds and berries. It has a suitable beak adaptation for drawing nectar. It is also partial to toddy when it is still in a pot on the tree.
Most birds get intoxicated as a result and are easily caught. Some even fall into the pot and drown. When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s the streets of Kandy had many lorikeets brought in for sale. Now the numbers have dropped drastically.
There are also two owls on the list of endemic birds One is the Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanonotum) and the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni).
This owl was first discovered in 2001, in the Sinharaja forest, by Deepal Warakagoda and soon after photographed by Chandima Kahandawela in the presence of Nanda Senanayake and Deepal. It has been named after Thilo Hoffman a long time conservationist in Sri Lanka,
Two species of our barbets are also endemic. The Yellow-Fronted Barbet (Megalaima flavifrons) and the Ceylon Small Barbet (Megalaima rubricapilla). Barbets are fruit eating birds.
Though fruit eaters both species occasionally take insects. These two species can be found in most parts of the island, where they are fairly common. These barbets are very vocal with distinctive calls, which are replied by other barbets.
Two birds from the same family that are not easily encountered are the Green-billed Coucal (Centrophus chlororhynchus) and the Red-faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus).
This coucal is no different to the common coucal that we see regularly except that it is slightly smaller; its beak is light green and wings darker. A forest bird it is very shy and elusive. The coucal is found in the wet zone but not over an elevation of around 3000 feet.
The Ceylon Blue Magpie, (Cissa oranata) or Kehibella in Sinhala is a bird of the high forest canopy of the wet zone. It is a beautiful, predominantly blue bird, about the size of a crow but with a larger tail.
They live in pairs and sometimes in flocks. There is a flock of these birds that are practically resident in the Aranya at the Sinharaja forest edge near Aigburth Estate, Rakwana. Food is left for them and this flock comes by in the morning and evening. The Blue Magpie is also seen at Hakgala regularly.
The malkoha is about the size of the common coucal but more slender. Its tail is also longer. It is found in the wet zone forests and in some scattered forests in the dry zone.
In his book, Henry (1955) expresses concern that "owing to the extension of cultivation, and through shooting, its numbers have seriously declined throughout its former haunts, and now it must be considered definitely a scarce bird".
It is still a scarce bird but fortunately has survived the last 50 years mainly because it is not shot by sportsmen now.
Four species of thrushes are endemic. They are the Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma), The Ceylon Whistling Thrush or Arrenga (Myiophoneus blighi), The Spotted -wing Thrush (Zoothera spiloptera) and the Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax cinereifrons). Thrushes are mostly arboreal feeding mainly on insects.
The Arrenga is the least seen of these four thrushes. It lives in densely wooded forests, close to running water, in the high wet zone. Douglas Ranasinghe, in his recent book, says that until the Serendib Scops Owl was discovered in 2001, the Arrenga was the last bird to be discovered and that in 1868.
The Ceylon Wood Pigeon (Columba torringtoni), Maila Goya in Sinhala or Karuppu Pura in Tamil, is the largest of our pigeons and doves. From far off it can be mistaken by the naked eye for a raptor. Its distinguishing feature is the 'checker board' pattern on the back of its neck.
It is also called Lady Torrington's Pigeon, named after the wife of Governor Torrington. This is a bird that prefers the high canopy of our forests. The other endemic pigeon is the Pompadour Green Pigeon (Treron pompadora).
It is called Batagoya in Sinhala and Pachcha Pura in Tamil. This and the other species of pompadour pigeons are seen in flocks feeding on various types of fruit in the low country. Shooting 'Batayas' was a regular pastime of sportsmen in the past.
There are two species of endemic bulbuls, the Black-capped Bulbul (Pyanonotus melanicterus) and the Yellow-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus penicillatus). The Black-capped bulbul is found in most parts of the country except over an elevation of 3500 feet or a little more.
It does not seem to like dense forests. The Yellow-eared Bulbul is very common in the hills over 4000 feet but is seen sometimes in lower elevations. Bulbuls are mainly fruit eaters but not averse to taking small insects and grubs.
Also on the list of endemics are three species of babblers, the Ceylon Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldi), the Brown-capped Babbler (Pelleorneum fuscocapillum) and the Ceylon Rufous Babbler (Turdoides rufescens).
Sri Lanka has eight species of babblers including these three. Babblers are mostly terrestrial and do not have the ability to fly strongly. Their diet consists mainly of insects and grubs. However they are also seen taking small fruits occasionally.
Sri Lanka has two species of hornbills, the Malabar Pied (Anthracoceros coronatus) and the Ceylon Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The Malabar Pied has a double beak or casque, as in the Toucans in South America, but the Grey Hornbill, called Alu Kendetta in Sinhala and Irattai Chondu Kuruvi in Tamil, has only a single curved beak. The Grey Hornbill is endemic.
The hornbills have unusual nesting habits. After selecting a suitable hole in a tree, the female gets inside and the male seals the hole with a paste made of its droppings, leaving only a small space for the female to put out her beak.
She lays one to three eggs and proceeds to hatch them. In the meantime, the male brings the female fruits, which is their diet, and feeds her through this tiny aperture. The female is totally dependent on the male during this period. If some misfortune befalls the male the female too is doomed.
The smallest of the endemics is the Ceylon Hill White-eye (Zosterops ceylonensis). Sri Lanka has two species of white-eyes, the other being the Ceylon Small White-eye (Zosterops palperbosa), called Mal Karalla in Sinhala and Pu Kuruvi in Tamil. the white eyes are even smaller than a sparrow.
The Hill White-eye is a very active bird always looking for its food, which consists of caterpillars, insects etc. It is gregarious and moves about in flocks. Another endemic of similar size is Legge's Flowerpecker (Dicaeum vincens), which is named after Vincent Legge the ornithologist referred to above.
The Common Wood Shrike or Ceylon Wood Shrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) is also a small bird. This is little larger than a sparrow and is found in the low country going up to about 3000 feet. Its food consists caterpillars, insects and grubs.
The Ceylon Crested Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) is an unmistakable bird. It is black, has a crest and a long tail. It is called Konda Kauwda in Sinhala and Irattai Val Kuruvi in Tamil. From a suitable perch it swoops down on flying insects, which make up its diet.
There is a similar species, the Racquet-tailed Drongo, which is similar but has a racket shape at the end of its tail.
Drongos are good mimics of other birds. It is also a very aggressive bird and chases off any intruding birds. The drongo is also a sentinel species in that it warns other birds of any approaching danger.
The house sparrow sized Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica) is the only swallow that is endemic. It is seen all over the low country flying around, mostly over paddy fields, trying to get at flying insects which constitute its prey. The nest is a mud cup built under a roof, bridge or cave.
The Crimson-backed Woodpecker (Chrysocolaptes indicus) is a very colourful and active bird, flying from tree to tree tapping at the trunks to drum out the ants and other insects living inside, so that they can be consumed. The nest is also in a hole of a tree as in the hornbill but unlike the hornbill the female is not incarcerated inside the nest hole.
A bird with a melodious song is the Ceylon Hill Mynah or Grackle (Gracula ptilogenys). It is found mostly in the central hills.
There is another species similar to this bird, the Common Grackle, the main difference being the shape of the yellow wattle at the back of their necks. These birds are also good mimics of the human voice.
The common mynah is also a similar shaped and sized bird. The Ceylon White-headed Starling or White-faced Starling (Sturnus albofrontatus) is a rare bird found in the tall forests of the wet zone.
The Dusky Blue Flycatcher (Eumyias sordida) is the only flycatcher that is endemic. It is found in the hill country over 1000 feet. Though called a flycatcher it eats fruits as well as caterpillars and other non flying insects.
The Ceylon Warbler (Bradypterus palliseri) is partial to insects and grubs, which it finds on the ground. It is also called Palliser's Warbler and The Bush Warbler.
As mentioned earlier endemics are found only in this country. If they die out then there are no replacements elsewhere.
It is therefore very important that these species are conserved. The first thing is to ensure that their habitats are not destroyed or disturbed. This will ensure that they have the security and food resources they require.
The main function of birds is to feed themselves and reproduce. A secure habitat will ensure that. If this is done future generations can continue to enjoy watching these birds as we have done so far for generations.
By Jayantha Jayawardene
May 7, 2007