View Full Version : The Courtship feeding of Orange-headed Thrush

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:07 AM
It was a few moments’ sojourn in last scorching summer under the roof made by dense green leaves of the mango trees and in the ground where sunrays were playing hide and seek with the dry leaves in our village. One was the King and the other his wife, the queen. Their bodies were deep and bright orange coloured, and their conjugal life as well was colourful in the same manner, almost same as ourselves the humans. Are you surprised? Or confused? Please wait and let me elaborate.

The “King” and the “Queen” in my story is actually a pair of birds. Their English name is Orange headed thrush (OHT), and scientific name Zoothera citrina, whom in Bengali we call “Dama”. This Citrina sub-species of the OHT are found across the foot of the north eastern Himalayas. There is another sub-species called caynotus which looks a bit different and carries white patches on either side of their eyes. They are found across the southern India.

They are not very popular as cage birds in our country but in south eastern Asian countries they have a very high demand as cage birds. To cater for this demand these birds are commercially produced and reared in Java and Indonesia. These birds are known as marvelous singers. The famous ornithologist Salim Ali has quoted on their singing capacities in the ninth part of his book “Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan” - “A typical Thrush song, loud, sweet and variable with some very high pitched notes, reminiscent of the Blackbird’s; contains many successive repetition of strophes (as a European Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos) and faithful imitations of other birds’ songs and call. Uttered chiefly in the morning and evening while sitting motionless, wings drooping at the sides and tail held low; usually given from low trees or down in dense cover.” This ability of these birds has made them more lucrative to the prospective customers.

I have never heard them of singing very loudly. The period of their conjugal life that I witnessed was very small and was only for three days. I observed them for two consecutive days then about seven days later. The OHTs are basically shy in nature. They took quite a lot of time to feel free in the presence of a large camera and not-a-good looking cameraman. After that they took my presence as granted.

"The King" and "The Queen"

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:09 AM
The male and the female look almost same. There is only one difference between them to identify them. The back of the male is grey while that of the female is brownish grey.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:10 AM
The female one.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:12 AM
I could observe them for about one hour only. In that period of time the king fed its queen beakful of earthworms three to four times.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:15 AM
The queen remained in a same place and did not budge much. Most of the time it was engaged in cleaning its body with its beak. Its wings hung loosely on either sides of its body while the male bird was busy rummaging in the dry leaves for earthworms and then feeding its partner those earthworms very happily. Each time after being fed, the female bird was repeatedly coming to a particular place on the ground with lots of dry leaves under the sun-rays, spread its wings widely and sat there.
On one occasion I noticed that the male bird brought some nest building stuff in its beak and hopped around the female bird which was sitting there in the same spot.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:16 AM
I saw the same series of events. The male bird was feeding the female one from time to time. But the female bird was not doing the act of spreading its wings as it was sitting in a place.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:18 AM
I witnessed a peculiar habit of the birds. The male bird kept on feeding the female one in the same manner.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:19 AM
All of a sudden the female bird picked up a dry blade of grass in its beak.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:21 AM
The male one was close nearby. He quickly reacted by collecting some hay materials in its beak and coming close to its partner. Then they exchanged the contents of their mouth sitting in a branch of tree.
This is known as “nesting material sharing”.

On each occasion the male fed the female in the last three days the food materials always included the earthworms. On one occasion only there was the fruit of the ‘Madras Thorn’ (Pithecellobium dulce) plant but the male was not very willing to feed that to the female. Though the female did not show any unwillingness to receive it from its partner.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:23 AM
1. Many male birds go on feeding their female counterparts from the time they choose their partner till the time of hatching. In the language of the ornithology this practice of the birds feeding their partners is known as Courtship feeding and the food stuff they present to the females are known as Nuptial gifts. In the case of American Robin we see the opposite. The female birds feed their male counterparts.

2. The incidence of sitting in a place and spreading the wings by the female birds is perhaps display of their consent to the courtship by the male. Though there is a lot of scope of further observation and research.
3. There are a number of reasons why the males feed the females during the mating seasons.

Firstly, it helps to select the partner during the mating seasons. In 2003 scientist Helfenstein carried out an extensive research on the Black-legged Kittiwake along the coastal regions of France and established that a female bird prefers and selects that male bird as its conjugal partner if that male bird performed its courtship feeding duties properly in the previous season.

Secondly, this is a symbol of strong conjugal relationship. This practice strengthens the relationship of the pair of birds. The proper quantity and quality of nuptial gifts prevents the female from the idea of “divorcing” the male counterpart. This way the female becomes assured that its partner will be capable of rearing her and her children in the future as well. Ornithologist Lack carried out a research on the Roadrunners in 1940 in Arizona, USA and established that the female birds beg for food from their male counterparts in the way same as the chicks beg for food from their parents.

Thirdly, direct benefit. Though it was not possible for me to ascertain whether the male bird supplies all the food required by the female to survive during the mating seasons, we can very well say that the male take a large amount of responsibility to feed the female. The female requires a huge amount of energy during the mating seasons to develop eggs and subsequently to develop the heat in its body to hatch those eggs. The physical capabilities of the females get reduced while they develop eggs in their bodies. Besides that the females have to spend long periods of time in the nest during hatching. During these periods the males help their partners by supplying proper food. We may wonder why do the male birds perform so much for the females! When the supply of food is sufficient in terms of quantity and quality the number of eggs and their qualitative properties will get enhanced. The hatching period will get reduced. In this regard we can mention Salim Ali who has said in his book that the females of the 'caynotus' subspecies of the OHTs spend more time on incubation.

I have no explanation of the peculiar behavior of the pair of birds on the third day. Perhaps the female bird by picking a dry grass in its beak tried to convey the message to its partner that it was time for making a nest. Dry grass is what is used to build their nests. In the cases of many other birds it is usual to share the nesting materials with each other. This habit is very much prevalent in the Grey Herons. Adelie Penguins have been seen to present small pebbles to their partners as nuptial gifts which are used to make the cushions of their nests. But this discovery in the case of the OHTs is first for me.

The female is begging.

Samrat Sarkar
24-03-2018, 09:31 AM
Lastly, I should admit that I have not seen them mating during my observation. They did not build their nest either in the place where I witnessed their sweet conjugal activities. But I saw the male bird to collect and carry dry blades of grasses to some other place a number of times. Afterwards I came to know from the local people that their conjugal life turned out to be successful. In that very mango orchard that pair of the OHT used to come with their siblings to feed them. Still now, when I visit that place I look for that pair of King and the Queen along with the princes and princesses in the bed of the dry leaves smeared with mellow sun-rays.

Written & Photographed by Samrat Sarkar

Note - This article has already been published in a renowned national Magazine as printed version. Although I am uploading this article in this popular forum of IndiaWilds to reach a wider range of readers and wildlife enthusiasts and also for researchers.

Papers or books cited –
1. A re-interpretation of courtship feeding by T. Royama, Institute of Forest-zoology, Department of Forestry, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.
2. Orange-headed Thrush Zoothera citrina and the avian X-factor, BirdingASIA 9 (2008): 58–60. By Paul Jepson.
4. The Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
5. Courtship Feeding in Birds Author(s): David Lack, Margaret M. Nice, Amelia R. Laskey, Hervey Brackbill, A. L. Rand and Clarence Cottam Source: The Auk, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), pp. 56-60.
9. COURTSHIP FEEDING AND OSPREY REPRODUCTION BY ALAN POOLE, Boston University Marine Program, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 2543 USA.

Equipment used: - Canon EOS 7D + Canon 500mm f4 + Monopod

Saktipada Panigrahi
25-03-2018, 08:57 AM
Nice Study Report on a mating pair of Orange-headed Thrush painstakingly complied with. Wish to see more such in-depth study and research on mammals, birds, reptiles etc. from you in future.
Thanks for sharing. SaktiWild

Samrat Sarkar
26-03-2018, 08:44 AM
Always love your inspiration.. Shakti Da..

Mrudul Godbole
27-03-2018, 02:49 PM
The observations and the lovely photographs really make the article a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing the detailed information.

Roshni Patel
09-05-2018, 10:33 AM
Such an amazing observation skills you have. Thanks for an informative share.

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 08:50 PM
The above observation was made in 2017. After four years that couple has returned to that very place in my village. But probably the Female has changed her Male partner. I'll be posting some fresh images only of this year as I have seeing them at least two hours in a day. Honorable viewers may continue to see their courtship oriented activity and other activity which I manage to capture this year. All of my inputs will be posted latter after completion of my observation. Please follow this thread.

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 08:51 PM
The Male 2021

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:08 PM
The Female

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:09 PM
To the left is Male and right is Female

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:11 PM
The male is in front

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:13 PM
The Male catches a cricket.

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:15 PM
The male removes the legs and antenna.

Samrat Sarkar
02-05-2021, 10:16 PM
The male presents the insect to the female

Mrudul Godbole
06-05-2021, 11:15 AM
Great that you could observe them again this year. Here the male offers a cricket, while earlier the male was only offering earthworms as you have mentioned in the artile earlier. Some difference in the behaviour? Look forward to see more in the series. Thanks for sharing.

Samrat Sarkar
06-05-2021, 05:22 PM
@Mrudul Ji
Yes, this year I have observed some differences in their behaviour. In 2019 May, I was busy observing breeding behaviour of Asian Paradise Fly-catcher in an another place of village. Where I observed A male Orange headed Thrush collecting food for his female partner and feeding her. They often offer cricket and other insects but grossly earth warm. This year, I think, due to lack of rainfall earth warms are not available in good number. But which I observed that they prefer earth warm for courtship feeding. Here I am posting that image of the male 2019. He was too close to me. Although I have not tried to document their courtship behaviour as I was busy observing Asian Paradise.

Samrat Sarkar
06-05-2021, 05:43 PM
Here is some images of male Orange headed thrush collecting earth warm in 2019 where I was observing Asian paradise flycatcher.

Samrat Sarkar
06-05-2021, 05:44 PM
Here is another image from 2019.