Harry Carr’s success with this intriguing softbill
Text and photos by Simon Degenhard.
During late September 2010 I received a phone call from the late Harry Carr, asking me if I would like to pop over and photograph a nest of Noisy Pittas. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t let pass me bye, as the successful breeding of this beautiful little bird in aviculture has generally been an irregular occurrence. I packed my camera bag and headed for Harry’s a couple of days later and whilst quietly observing and photographing the nest of four young pitta’s I asked Harry to help me put together an article so we could share this well-deserved success with the world.
Harry kept Noisy Pittas for many years, but this success was his first for quite some time and the result of a dedicated effort to breed these little guys again. Harry explained to me that the pittas make a very interesting aviary bird, they are somewhat shy, but if housed properly, once settled they can become quite trusting of their keeper. They are a quiet bird that blends in very well with the surrounds of a planted aviary and as a result are very easily missed by visitors, though if you take the time to sit or stand quietly you can almost be guaranteed a sighting.
The Noisy Pitta (Pitta Versicolor) is one of three native pitta species, with the other two being the Rainbow Pitta and the Red-bellied Pitta. Noisy Pittas are found along the east coast of Australia from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales all the way to Cape York in Northern Queensland. They are also found on the Torres Strait Islands. They frequent areas of lush rainforest with a heavy covering of leaf litter and although they can and will fly when startled or threatened, they spend the majority of their time on or near the ground. They are not considered threatened in the wild and in some areas are considered to be locally common. They tend to be more common in the northern half of their range.
When it comes to providing suitable accommodation, Harry informed me that a large planted aviary is the only way to go. A minimum size would be around 5m long x 3m wide with height being of less importance, but as with all softbills in general it is definitely a case of the bigger the better. Harry’s breeding pair were housed in a very large walkthrough aviary that measured approximately 25m long x 10m wide and had a maximum height of around 7m. The aviary should be fairly heavily planted but should also incorporate some cleared areas and the floor should be earthen with a generous covering of leaf litter/mulch. They can be housed in a mixed collection providing the other birds are of similar size or larger and that they do not nest on or near to the ground as pittas have at times been known predate the nests of other birds and eat the eggs and/or small chicks. And although this is not always the case, it is even more likely to occur when the pittas are feeding young of their own, as the diet fed to the chicks is almost entirely insectivorous and/or protein based and as such other bird’s eggs and/or newly hatched babies make an excellent and easily accessed food source. Pittas should only ever be housed one pair per aviary as death or injury will result if more than one pair is housed together.
Pittas, like most softbills are highly insectivorous and this does provide some challenges when it comes to providing them with a suitable captive diet. Harry’s birds were fed a diet that was similar to that provided for the majority of softbills in his collection and consisted of live food including mealworms, snails and wood roaches, kangaroo mince, pinkie mice and his own softbill soft food; though a commercial soft food such as Wombaroo Insectivore mix would work just as well. It was interesting to observe the pittas removing the snails from their shells; they first carried them to a preferred rock and then proceed to repeatedly bang them against it until the shell broke, thereby allowing them access to the tasty morsel inside! The birds also had access to fruit including apple, pear and orange, this was primarily provided for the other occupants of the aviary, but the pittas did consume varying amounts from time to time. This diet was supplemented by whatever insects could be found amongst the plants and leaf litter.
Harry’s pittas began showing signs of breeding in early spring 2010 and a nest was subsequently built in a corner of their large aviary. It was interesting to note that the corner that they chose to build this first nest in was not only the closest to the door of the aviary, but was also only a mater of a metre or so from the stairs that gave access to the aviaries below and his live food breeding room, it was not unusual for Harry to use these stairs half a dozen or more times a day. The nest consisted of rather course sticks interwoven together to form a rather large ball with an entrance tunnel to one side leading into a protected chamber in the centre in which the eggs were laid. The overall diameter of the nest was approximately 35-40cm. The hen laid this first clutch in mid-September and successfully hatched and reared four chicks.
It was interesting to observe the parents attending to the young, making continuous trips to the nest with food and also on occasion witnessing the chicks pass faecal sacks to the parents in order to keep the nest clean. The amount of food fed by Harry was increased progressively as the chicks grew and at the peak just prior to fledging the pair were receiving two margarine containers of mealworms, twenty snails, a dozen pinkie mice and a generous handful of Kangaroo mince daily! Harry informed me that it was vitally important to keep a constant supply of protein rich food available to the parents in order to ensure that they would rear all the chicks, as if there was a break in the supply it was very likely that they would let one or more of the chicks die. He also believed that it would be unlikely for all four chicks to be successfully reared in the wild, as it would be very difficult for the parents to find enough food for the youngsters. Four healthy chicks were subsequently fledged from this nest and promptly removed upon their reaching independence. It was very important to remove the chicks as soon as they were independent as you can almost guarantee that the cock would show a lot of aggression towards them that would most likely result in injury or even death.
An interesting behavioural observation that Harry relayed to me and one that I was later able to witness myself was that upon anyone entering the aviary the pair would immediately retreat to the opposite end of the aviary to the nest as if to draw the attention of the intruder/observer away from the nest site. They would then remain there for anywhere up to 20+ minutes, even in the case of fresh food being delivered. They would then only approach the food when they were sure that the coast was clear. Once at the food dish they would routinely pick up as many mealworms or pinkies or as much mince as possible in one go and then retreat once again, with their tasty beakful, away from the nest to a vantage point from which they could again survey the surrounds and make sure the coast was absolutely clear. Once it had been ascertained that it was safe to approach the nest they would hop rapidly towards the nest, but not without stopping a couple more times to double check that it was safe, and then upon reaching the nest entrance the chicks would pop their heads out with beaks wide open ready for the tasty morsels to be literally shoved down there gobs! This routine was repeated every time the chicks were fed, making the whole process a rather painstakingly long winded affair!
To Harry’s surprise, shortly after the four young Pittas were removed the pair promptly commenced nest building again, but this time their chosen site was atop a chair that Harry had placed on the raised walkway within the aviary to enable him to sit and observe the first nest! This proved a problem for Harry as he had to virtually brush past the nest on a daily basis in order to access the feeding stations within the aviary. Things were seemingly going well, and another four chicks were hatched, unfortunately the continual intrusion proved too much for the pair and they abandoned the chicks when they were about half grown. Harry decided to leave the nest intact to see if they would reuse it, only changing things slightly by turning the chair around to face away from the door, thereby offering the pair slightly more privacy.
The disappointment of the loss of the second nest soon turned to joy again as to Harry’s surprise the pair laid a third clutch, once again choosing the nest on the chair. The hen again sat tight and hatched four or possibly even five chicks; the exact number wasn’t determined, as Harry understandably didn’t want to disturb the pair too much. This went on to be the second successful breeding of the pittas for the season. This pair of pittas proved to be good parents so long as disturbance was kept to a minimum and a constant supply of live food was made available.
Harry’s success with these gorgeous little softbills was a great achievement and a testament to his dedication to his birds; a very well-deserved reward for a long time softbill enthusiast, that’s for sure!
Noisy Pittas are a beautiful aviary subject and with their interesting habits and fairly specialised feeding requirements they present an exciting challenge for the dedicated softbill enthusiast. Though not suitable for the beginner, they are a great addition to the collection of the experienced softbill keeper and well worth the extra effort that is required to breed them successfully.