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 Post subject: GREY FRANCOLIN - ceylonensis Whistler
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 16, 2005 4:30 am 
GREY FRANCOLIN

(Francolinus pondicerianus ceylonensis Whistler)

Introduction

Of the seven families that comprise the order Galliformes or Game birds, only the Phasianidae are found naturally in Sri Lanka. This large family consists of numerous pheasants, quails, partridges, and junglefowl, including the progenitor of the Domestic Fowl. It is represented in Sri Lanka by eight species of which the Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) and the Sri Lanka Junglefowl (Gallus lafayetti) are endemic, while the Rain Quail (Cotournix coromandelica) is an occasional winter visitor or straggler to the island. The other five species are resident and include the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Blue-breasted Quail (Coturnix chinensis), Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica) and two species of Partridge or Francolin, the Painted Francolin (Francolinus pictus) and the Grey Francolin (F. pondicerianus).

Description

The Grey Francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus ceylonensis) once known as the Ceylon Grey Partridge, was usually spoken of as the ‘red-legged partridge”. In Sri Lanka, it is called Kauthari in Tamil and Ussa-wattuwa in Sinhala. It is about 31 cm long, and about the size of a large domestic pigeon or a half-grown village hen, but with shorter tail and wings. Being a game bird, it is characterized by its strong legs and feet, adapted to both running and scratching. It can be identified in the field by its olive-brown head with pale eyebrow or supercilium and the characteristic black-edged rufous throat patch. The legs and feet are dark red. The birds are however well camouflaged by the pattern of their plumage, which is exquisitely penciled. The breast and abdomen grayish white, tinged with rufous and closely barred with narrow wavy black bars. Sexes alike, but the cock somewhat larger with a sharp spur, occasionally double, on each leg.

Image

Distribution

Francolinus pondicerianus ceylonensis is confined to the coastal strip of the dry country that extends from Mundal lagoon (between Puttalam and Chilaw) in the south to the Jaffna Peninsula in the north, together with the adjacent islands, and common in Kalpitiya. It is never to be found more than 8-15 km from the coast. Such a restricted range may suggest that they are not indigenous but were introduced, perhaps from India, by some European sportsman. Nevertheless, the Grey Francolin is recognized today as a race endemic to Sri Lanka, although it is scarcely distinguishable from the South Indian race. It is particularly numerous in the islands of Mannar and Iranaitivu and also in areas south of Pooneryn Point, where there is in fact a place named after it - “Kauthari Munai” or Partridge Point. It is not clear just how far south of Elephant Pass the Grey Francolin ranges on the east coast, it has been met with to the north of Mullaitivu. Globally, the range of the species extends from the Persian Gulf in the west across Southern Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan to the Indian subcontinent including the Andaman Islands where it was introduced.

Ecology

The Grey Francolin inhabits open ground dotted with scrub jungle along the coast close to cultivation. The low bushes, clumps of stunted trees and xerophytic thorn scrub comprising mostly of Acacia eburnea are its favourite haunts. The semi-arid thorn scrub covers a large extent of the coastal area in the Mannar district, providing some sort of ground cover for soil against excessive loss of moisture. It is particularly partial to areas where cultivation is surrounded by sandy waste ground and light scrub jungle, and avoids heavy forests and swampy areas. It is typically found in pairs, but family parties or coveys of 4-8 birds are also known which break up into pairs during the breeding season. Despite its brown plumage, it is a beautiful bird with a graceful gait, well adapted to withstand drought conditions. As they can subsist for long periods without water as long as dew is available, they are even encountered miles away from water, on desolate areas. They are often seen pecking about along the A14 highway between Giant’s Tank and Mannar in the late evenings from 1730 to 1930 hrs, but their homes are in the scrub, or in thorny trees in which many of them roost.

Although the Grey Francolin is an amazing runner, it prefers to walk. The birds seem to glide rather than run. It is difficult to flush them, and hence sportsmen hunting partridges in Sri Lanka in the old days used dogs to get them to fly or poked them out with sticks or drove them out with stones. When alarmed or disturbed, they will quickly fly with a true Partridge ‘whirr’ and disappear into the nearest bush or Euphorbia hedge. But unlike the English Partridge, members of a covey do not rise together but scatter in different directions, with individuals dodging from bush to bush, surreptitiously squatting in ones and twos in different thickets until they are out of danger. Each bird has to be pursued separately while the remainder plot their escape. The flight is of short duration of up to 50 or 100 m, after which the birds would land and start to run and hide. It is only during such flights, the chestnut tail is clearly visible. The Grey Francolin is an extremely noisy bird, whose call is the most noteworthy, and can be heard at daybreak and also in the evening from about 1630 hrs to dusk. A covey would rise with a shrill shriek and cackle. The call resembles the syllables ke-augh-ke-augh repeated several times, and can be varied by a more lively call like ka-tee klar-ka, ka-tee klar-ka. Another call sounds kito-kito-kito. The male and female in a pair are known to unite their notes and produce a musical call that sounds kateela, kateela, kateela. Pairs communicate with each other in a quaint, whimpering sound but when alarmed, their call is a whirring khirr-khirr.

Both adults and young feed on insects, mostly grasshoppers. They can be observed digging and scratching the ground for insects with the bill and feet. Even cattle dung is pecked at times for food. The young are especially fond of ants and their pupae or larvae. Birds are known to tear anthills to pieces and level them. Besides insects, they also feed on seeds of weeds, green leaves and grain. They forage for most part in the morning and during mid-day, and vary in size according to the abundance of their favourite food. They always roost in pairs or family groups in thorny trees in the open field. They are remarkable for their readiness to perch in trees to escape from the numerous snakes which infest the thorny bushes on the coast. Like many members of the order Galliformes, partridges are pulveratrices: they dust themselves to clean their feathers and to be rid of ecto-parasites. Many birds that dust themselves never wash!

The breeding season is from May to August, and perhaps again in December. During the breeding season, the cock birds become aggressive in defence of their territories. In courtship, pairs are known to spring into the air and chase one another. The Grey Francolin pairs early in the year but the hen does not begin to lay until June. Nearly all cursorial birds nest on the ground, some in the open and others amid vegetation. The nest is merely a depression on the ground, into which a few blades of dead leaves are added. The cryptic colouration of the hen helps provide some degree of protection to the eggs while she sits on them. The female lays from 8-10 eggs, but sometimes the clutch size can be larger, from 8-16. This high rate of egg-production is offset by a high rate of loss; for the eggs are never covered when the incubating bird leaves them, and hence predators destroy many of them. If the eggs are destroyed, the hen will lay again and a late brood is reared. Incubation which takes 18-19 days is solely by the hen, and when she is sitting on her clutch, the cock would remain somewhere in the neighbourhood and give timely warning of the approach of danger. The hen too would approach the nest circumspectly. In many nidifugous birds, the chicks feed for themselves from hatching, but they are escorted and guided by one or both parents. In the case of the Grey Francolin, the cock will accompany his mate once the eggs are hatched, and share the work of teaching the young to shift for themselves. The chicks become fully independent of their parents soon and are able to run strongly and fly weakly.

The Grey Francolin occurs at a crude density of 3.5 birds per km in the vicinity of the Giant’s Tank in Mannar District in Sri Lanka. The average number of birds in a covey is 5.

Conservation

In India, partridges are captured and kept as pets because of their loud calls, and also trained to fight. Such partridge fights are unknown in Sri Lanka, where they are mostly captured using snares and eaten by villagers. Being very pugnacious, the cock birds can be easily captured with decoy birds. When taken as chicks and hand-reared, they become exceedingly tame, following the master like a dog.

The distribution and abundance of the Grey Francolin appears to be most influenced by habitat variables such as vegetation height, vegetation density and heterogeneity, soil moisture content and ease of obtaining food. Given its restricted distribution and its status as an endemic race in Sri Lanka, the Grey Francolin is of great conservation importance. Surveys are needed to identify areas or tracts of land inhabited by the birds for protection.

Reference to the above material from:

© Charles Santiapillai1, S. Wijeyamohan2 and Rajnish Vandercone1 (2003)

1 Department of Zoology, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

2 Department of Biological Science, Vavuniya Campus of the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka


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