The Times of India
Monday 12 April 1999 

Mountain quail: Waiting to be rediscovered 

C R Jayachandran

 NEW DELHI: More than 120 years after the mountain quail was last spotted, a full-fledged survey is being launched to put to rest doubts about the existence of the small shy bird in the Terai Himalayas. 

Although the critically endangered bird has eluded sighting since 1876, wildlife experts and ornithologists are not willing to write off the bird, especially after several other species thought to have gone extinct have made a reappearance after several decades. 

``Given the unclear status of the mountain quail, a working range for these birds is being established and an extensive survey is proposed from November to January in the Garhwal and Kumaon hills to encourage people to search for and identify the species,'' says WWF- India secretary general Samar Singh. 

 ``It is not fair to assert that the bird is no more. Lack of information or evidence by itself does not necessarily mean extinction,'' says Samar Singh. 

 The rediscovery of two birds, the jardine courser in Andhra Pradesh and the forest owlet in the Shahada forests of Maharashtra, is a good example of species ``resurfacing'' after a long period of about 100 years, he says. 

 ``During the 40 years of its known existence in India, the collection of only 11 specimens from the vicinity of Mussoorie and Nainital is on record and of these, nine are held in various museums of the world. Unfortunately, none of these are in india,'' laments Brig Ranjit Talwar of the WWF. 

 If man had discovered the mountain quail at a time when it was on the verge of extinction due to natural causes, the species may not have perished. Its natural habitat is still reasonably intact and the bird has certainly not been over hunted, Brig Talwar adds. 

``Logic therefore forces one to believe that this extremely shy bird is still alive somewhere in the lower Himalayas where suitable conditions still exist,'' he says. 

A near perfect image of the mountain quail, the least known Indian bird, will be created so as to enable the local people to recognise and identify the species. 

By using well-trained dogs, a small search team will try to track down the bird in the grasslands and adjoining forests which are its known habitat, says Singh. 

Slightly smaller than the grey partridge, the mountain quail or Himalayan mountain quail's range is difficult to trace since only two locations have been recorded by ornithologists. 

 The earliest authentic record of the mountain quail's, zoologically called Ophrysia superciliosa, existence dates back to 1836, when a British sportsman, tucker, collected a pair from the vicinity of Mussoorie. 

The last mountain quail, a female, was shot on the ridge known as Sherka-Dhanda, overlooking the Nanital lake, in 1876. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that the bird has been sighted since. 

 Described as a shy bird, the Himalayan quail is believed to be a resident of grassland or scrubland and oak forests at an altitude of 1,650 to 2,500 metres. Drastic changes in vegetation and land use pattern and other forms of disturbances have been responsible for the decline in the population of this species. 

``The bird is an enigma and nobody could ever photograph it. Its survival depends on its evasiveness and preservation of its habitat,'' says D Mathai of Traffic-India. 

It has been estimated that in the first five decades of the 20th century, a bird or a mammal species became extinct every 1.1 years, an extinction rate approximately 230 times faster than that in the pre- human era. 

The need for natural resources for the ever-increasing human population of India has had an adverse impact on the habitats of wildlife species. 

``For a species to become extinct, there has to be loss of habitat, over hunting or over exploitation. None of these are applicable to the mountain quail,'' Brig Talwar says. 

The mountain quail measures about 10 inches in length, has a 3.5 inches long wing, a three-inch tail and one-inch tarsus with a bill measuring 0.6 inch from the gape. The male is dark olive in colour while the female is drab or dark brown, adapted to ground dwelling and nesting. 

``Whatever movement it made was usually on foot, unless it was alarmed, when it probably used its wings to escape. Its wings were ill adapted for flying,'' Mathai says. 

 According to famous British ornithologist A O Hume, the bird's irregular appearance in areas around Mussoorie and Nainital is due to the fact that it is possibly a migrant from the well wooded south-eastern portion of Chinese Tibet during severe winters. 

But Brig Talwar says the body structure and recorded observation of this bird suggest that it was a poor flier and was at best capable of local migration of a few hundred metres. 

 ``It should thus be treated as a resident bird of the lower himalayas between altitudes of 1,500 to 2,400 metres,'' he says. 

 ``It will be reasonable to assume that the distribution of the mountain quail extended from Mussoorie in the west to Nainital, and on to the Indo-Nepal border. How much further east it extended is possible to state only if fresh evidence is obtained,'' he says. 

Thirty years ago it was believed that the white-winged wood duck, jordan's double banded courser and the forest owlet were extinct. Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals, these birds were rediscovered and are now safe for posterity. Is such a fate waiting in the wings for the mountain quail? (PTI)