PITTA, in ornithology, from the Telugu pitta, meaning a small bird, latinized by Vieillot in 1816 (Analyse, p. 42) as the name of a genus, and since adopted by English ornithologists as the general name for a group of birds, called by the French Br&nes, and remarkable for their great beauty. 1 For a long while the Pitta elegans, male and female.
pittas were commonly supposed to be allied to the Turdidae, and some English writers applied to them the name of " waterthrushes " and " ant-thrushes," though there was no evidence of their having aquatic habits or predilections, or of their preying especially upon ants; but the fact that they formed a separate 1 In ornithology the word is first found as part of the native name, " Ponnunky pitta," of a bird, given in 1713 by Petiver, in the " mantissa " to Ray's Synopsis (p. 195), on the authority of Buckley (see ORNITHOLOGY). This bird is the Pitta bengalensis of modern ornithologists, and is said by Jerdon (Birds of India, i. 503) now to bear the Telugu name of Pona-inki.
family was gradually admitted. Their position was partly determined by A. H. Garrod, who, having obtained examples for dissection, in a communication to the Zoological Society of London, printed in its Proceedings for 1876, proved (pp. 512, 513) that the Pittidae belonged to that section of Passerine birds which he named Mesomyodi. since their syrinx, like that of the Tyrannidae (see KING-BIRD), has its muscles attached to the middle of its half-rings, instead of to their extremities as in the higher Passerines or Acromyodi. They are now placed as a separate family Pittidae of the Clamatores division of the Anisomyodine Passeres. There are about fifty species, divided into a number of genera, confined to the Old World, and ranging from India and North China to Australia, New Guinea and New Britain, with one species in West Africa, the greatest number being found in Borneo and Sumatra. Few birds can vie with the pittas in brightly-contrasted coloration. Deep velvety black, pure white and intensely vivid scarlet, turquoise-blue and beryl-green mostly occupying a considerable extent of surface are found in a great many of the species to say nothing of other composite or intermediate hues; and, though in some a modification of these tints is observable, there is scarcely a trace of any blending of shade, each patch of colour standing out distinctly. This is perhaps the more remarkable as the feathers have hardly any lustre to heighten the effect produced, and in some species the brightest colours are exhibited by the plumage of the lower parts of the body. Pittas vary in size from that of a jay to that of a lark, and generally have a strong bill, a thick-set form, which is mounted on rather high legs with scutellated " tarsi," and a very short tail. In many of the forms there is little or no external difference between the sexes.
Placed originally among the Pittidae, but now created to form an allied family Philepittidae, is the genus Philepitta, consisting of two species peculiar to Madagascar. The two species which compose it have little outward' resemblance to the pittas, not having the same style of coloration and being apparently of more arboreal habits. The sexes differ greatly in plumage, and the males have the skin round the eyes bare of feathers and carunculated. (A. N.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)