Feathers are a feature unique to birds. They cover the skin, provide warmth and insulation, help in flying, gender identification and attracting mates. But in case of some birds, feathers help with another really special skill. Modified belly feathers help certain birds carry water, sometimes for up to 100 km! Sandgrouse, for example, that live in arid to semi-arid areas and breed in summer, carry water in their belly feathers to cool their eggs or to provide water to their thirsty chicks.
Out of the 16 species of sandgrouse in the world, six species have been reported from India and three species breed within the country’s territorial limits. As the name indicates, the Tibetan sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes tibetanus) is found in Tibet and up to Mongolia, with a small population breeding in Ladakh. The chestnut-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus) is found in all the arid parts of India, Pakistan, extending up to Iran and beyond. The painted sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus) is mainly found in India with a small extension in Pakistan, reaching up to northern Afghanistan. The remaining three species –– black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis), pin-tailed sandgrouse (P. alchata), and spotted sandgrouse (P. senegallus) –– are migratory and seen only in winter in Northwest India. Three more species have been reported from the Indian subcontinent but are now considered extra-limital, i.e. outside the limits of Indian territory. Except the Tibetan sandgrouse, I have seen all the sandgrouse found in India. I’ve also seen some others found in the Middle East and Africa. Despite 10-12 visits to Ladakh, the Tibetan variety that inhabits the highest elevation amongst all the sandgrouse species, has eluded me.
Sandgrouse are related to doves and pigeons but unlike their relatives which are found all over the world, even in remote islands, in the form of hundreds of species, sandgrouse are found only in Asia, southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This could be due to their preference of arid and semi-arid habitats. However, it is strange that despite being strong flyers, the sandgrouse have not reached Australia more than 80% of which is arid and eminently suitable for them. Incidentally, another arid-zone species originating in Africa has reached Australia and thrives there as the Australian bustard. The sandgrouse also have originated in Africa where 10 species are found and from there they spread out to the Old World. They are not found in the Americas. Interestingly, the sandgrouse is also not found in Sri Lanka although the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse is found up to Kanyakumari.
The painted sandgrouse is the only Indian species that is found in dry deciduous forests and jungles. It also shows what we call sexual plumage dimorphism, i.e. male and female are differently coloured. The male is gaudy with characteristic face markings, red bill, and light chestnut throat, neck and breast, ending in two dark bands separated by white feathers. Females are grey with spotted face and throat –– overall quite drab which helps in camouflage when she is sitting on eggs that are laid on the ground amongst small boulders, stones and fallen leaves. She blends so well with the ground that one can reach as close as one metre without noticing her.
Another species that fascinates me is the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse –– a bird of arid and semi-arid grasslands from India to southern Iran, Gulf countries and sub-Sahara and East Africa. Like in the case of many African-originated species, India is the eastern-most limit of this species. It is found in peninsular India in dry open habitats. It reaches maximum density in the Thar Desert and the Deccan Plateau. Like most sandgrouse, it also feeds on grass seeds, flowers, small insects and fallen berries. Its food and habit of nesting on the ground are now a bane as most of its habitat is either over-grazed, under plough or urbanised. I see a huge decline in the number of chestnut-bellied sandgrouse all over India, but I do not have comparative figures. As I have been emphasising, we have to pay more attention to so-called ‘common birds’ as they are no longer as ‘common’ as they used to be.
Another sandgrouse species that is perhaps in trouble is the migratory black-bellied Sandgrouse, earlier known as imperial sandgrouse. Sandgrouse are considered a delicacy and much sought after by hunters but the ‘imperial’ has an interesting story. It is mainly seen in the Thar Desert in India in winter. During the British rule, India’s maharajas used the hunting of leopards and tigers as a political tool. They would invite British colonial officers — viceroys, governors, emissaries to their kingdom for a hunt. After a successful hunt, when the colonials were in a good mood, court machinations were discussed and settled, generally to the satisfaction of the host. The Bikaner estate, however, did not have tigers, leopards or elephants, being in the arid Thar desert. Reaching there was also a challenge as it was far flung and reaching there meant having to traverse through narrow, difficult roads. Needless to say, it wasn’t very popular among the British officers. This is when a strategy was developed to bait the British officers into travelling all the way to Bikaner. And for this the imperial sandgrouse was the perfect tool! Hordes of imperial sandgrouse would come to the Bikaner estate in the cool winter months. The rulers of Bikaner developed a sanctuary near Gajner, 32 km from Bikaner which was perfect to collect rainwater to create a waterbody. In the surrounding plateaux, a thorn dryland forest was developed where the blackbuck, cheetal, sambhar and even the hog deer were introduced. The chinkara was already there. A large palace facing the waterbody was constructed where the Maharaja and his friends could stay during the shoot. The imperial sandgrouse, like any other sandgrouse, needs water at least once a day. Some species fly up to 100 km to reach water sources. The waterbody of Gajner soon became a magnet for the imperial sandgrouse. The hunting of thirsty sandgrouse was developed as a sport by the king, who then invited many British officers. There is a record that in one morning, more than four thousand imperial sandgrouse were shot.
Coming back to the subject of feathers carrying water, sandgrouse belly feathers are modified and act like a sponge. In very hot days, parents fly to waterbodies and after drinking, soak their belly, and quickly return to the nest to cool the eggs or provide water to waiting chicks. The chicks suck up water like a goat kid drinks milk from mother’s udders. I was fortunate enough to see such a scene while waiting in the hide on a hot June day in Karera Bustard Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Such sights remind us the resilience of nature, the beauty of adaptation, and the wonders of our natural world.