Our car is rattling up and down the grit-filled, rough track in the rocky grasslands of Saswad, near Pune. We’re spending an afternoon here, to try to get a glimpse of the striolated bunting, a bird considered endemic to the region (this has become its breeding ground of late) and other birds commonly spotted in the open grassland and scrub forest area, such as the ashy-crowned sparrow lark and grey-necked bunting.
The grasslands and scrub forests of Saswad are home to numerous birds from raptors like eagles to ground dwelling birds like the Indian courser and lapwings. We spot a yellow-wattled lapwing on a rock behind a shrub, its yellow feet just about visible.
A short, somewhat plump, mottled brown body is so well camouflaged against the sandy brown stone and charcoal rocks that I spot the bird only by chance. With its black, white, and brown plumage blending into the brown rocky landscape, the painted sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus) is not only an uncommon bird in this area, it is also hard to spot. This is despite the fact that the male painted sandgrouse sports a distinct black and white chest marking that is hard to miss.
Environmentalist Pratik Joshi, a member of Grasslands Trust, a volunteer-run organization tracking wildlife activity in the area says: “They stay close to the ground and don’t stand tall above the grass like the lapwings and coursers, making them harder to find.” The female painted sandgrouse is not as bright as the males, her plumage varying in shades from light cocoa to caramel brown, edged with white, and speckled with lines of black. The male is striking—arresting black-and-white plumage runs down from the middle of its small head to its beak, with similarly shaded feathers on the wings. A striped black-and-white streak runs below the neck and around its chest, and breaks the monochrome chestnut brown of the rest of its body.
painted sandgrouse is a pro in the art of staying still. The bird tends to stay rooted to its spot, well hidden among the grainy, rocky surface, until a perceived threat, like a vehicle, comes close. In the split second that I realised it was a bird and not another stone, it took flight.
The painted sandgrouse’s typical habitat is open grassland, grassy slopes with rocks, and dry scrub forests with rocky patches. It is endemic to India, with a small population found in Pakistan. It is not common in any particular place due to its habitat requirements of stony scrubland. Fortunately, it can be seen in the Saswad, Baramati, and Jejuri regions of Maharashtra. This area consists of savannah type dry scrub forest and grassland. These birds have also been seen in Ranthambore and other dry, desert areas of Rajasthan.
There are about 16 species of sandgrouse in the world—in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. The painted sandgrouse is perhaps the prettiest among the various species. It is comparatively brightly coloured, at least when compared to chestnut-bellied sandgrouse that has a duller tint.
Its striking black and white markings are helpful when it comes to finding “The One”. The male painted sandgrouse showcases its attractive plumage for the female during its mating ritual. This happens in the rainy season, says Mihir Godbole, wildlife photographer and one of the founder members of the Grasslands Trust. Needless to say, the best display gets the date.
Their colouring shows adaptation to their habitat, which is usually dry, dusty, and barren. They are found in pairs, unlike other sandgrouses, which are famous for flocking around waterbodies in large numbers during particular times of the day for drinking water. Most sandgrouses drink only once a day, even in extreme high temperatures.
Sandgrouse peck around the sand and stone filled landscape, feeding mostly on seeds, and occasionally on insects as well. They are extremely selective while foraging, says Joshi, and will not go out into the open, perhaps conscious of being preyed upon by predatory birds like the Bonelli’s eagle, sparrow hawk, Peregrine falcon, or white-eyed buzzard. Monitor lizards can be a threat to their eggs and newly hatched chicks that have not learnt to fly.
Their camouflage helps fool predators. “The plumage of the chicks is similar to the dry grass. Their yellow brown colour blends in completely,” Joshi tells me. And while they have missed out on the height, the short legs help them stay close to the ground, making it a quick job for them to move along unseen at ground level and merge into the gravel and rocks if a predator is near.
One fascinating quality is the way a painted sandgrouse uses its body to carry water to their chicks, who may be far away from watering holes. The feathers of their belly are used to absorb water and carry it back to the littles ones, who then gather around the parent, mostly the dad, to drink. The built-in camouflage ensures that the chicks can be left behind among rocks and stones on their own. The parents visit them with food and water until they are able to move around independently.
Although the painted sandgrouse is not a threatened species, environmentalists like Joshi and Godbole who have been visiting the dry grassland areas around Pune fear that the changing habitat could result in a decline in their numbers. The painted sandgrouse prefers living in a specific kind of dry, grassland habitat and is a bit of a loner. “These are shy birds and prefer secluded areas away from human habitat. With grasslands being encroached for multiple reasons such as plot development and agriculture, the area is getting surrounded by humans, and it may be difficult for such birds to find secluded spots that in turn may threaten their population.”