SAND GROUSE

SAND GROUSE (Pers. kokar, sangḵᵛārak, bāqerqera), a family (Pteroclididae) of game birds of which seven species are found in Persia (FIGURE 1). They are an interesting group of birds that are characteristic of Persia’s vast deserts and steppes. They have no affinity with true grouse, and any resemblance to the latter is entirely superficial. In fact, they are included in the same order as pigeons (Columbiformes) and are believed by many to be related to the waders (Charadriiformes).

Sand grouse are terrestrial birds, similar to pigeons in size and shape, with plumage of several shades of brown, gray, beige, and rufous, with black spots and vermiculations that provide very effective camouflage in their open-country environment. They run and walk well, despite their short legs, and have small, stout bills, moderately long tails (elongated in some species), and long and pointed wings. Their flight is swift and powerful and resembles that of pigeons or large plovers.

The seven species of sand grouse found in Persia are, (with a note on their lengths from tip of beak to end of tail, in centimeters): (1) Pallas’s sand grouse, kokar-e domderāz, Syrrhaptes paradoxus (36-41); this species, because of its elongated tail feathers, is the longest, but not the largest, sand grouse. It is the only species sighted irregularly, migrating, or erupting, from its habitats in Central Asia to northeastern Persia in winter. (2) Pin-tailed sand grouse, kokar-e šekam safid, Pterocles alchata (35-39), is a species found throughout central and eastern Persia and along the Persian Gulf coast up to western Persia. (3) Chestnut-bellied sand grouse, kokar-e šekam baluṭi, Pterocles exustus (31-33), found only in Baluchistan, in the southeastern corner of Persia. (4) Spotted sand grouse, kokar-e ḵāldār, Pterocles senegallus (30-35), which can be found in a fairly large area of southeastern Persia and along the entire southern coastline up to the Ilām region. (5) Black-bellied sand grouse, kokar-e šekam siāh (bāqerqera), Pterocles orientalis (33-35); this is the largest sand grouse found in Persia, with the widest distribution, existing throughout the country except in the northern and southern coastal areas and southeastern Persia. (6) Crowned sand grouse, kokar-e gandomi, Pterocles coronatus (27-29), a species found throughout the eastern half of the country except the northern parts of Khorasan and Semnān provinces, and also along the Persian Gulf coast to Khuzestan. (7) Lichtenstein’s sand grouse, kokar-e rāhrāh, Pterocles lichtensteinii, (24-26), which is the smallest and most rare of the Iranian sand grouse. It has a distribution similar to the spotted sand grouse, but in winter it ranges to northeastern Khorasan and westward to Khuzestan.

With the exception of Pallas’s sand grouse, all the species found in Persia are year-round residents, and several, such as the black-bellied sand grouse, pin-tailed sand grouse and crowned sand grouse, were formerly widespread and abundant. Regrettably, numbers of all species have declined dramatically, probably due primarily to indiscriminate hunting using four-wheel drive vehicles and also degradation of the steppe and desert environments (for a general view, see Firouz, 1999, p. 7ff.; idem, 2004, p. 4ff.).

The sexes differ slightly in plumage, but there is little or no seasonal variation. Sand grouse have a habit of flying in flocks to favorite drinking places, usually in the morning and late afternoon and often over large distances; round-trip flights sometimes reach up to 150 km. Their speed during such flights is estimated to be about 80 km per hour. Flocks of more than one species may gather at such watering sites. Sand grouse pair off when breeding but are highly gregarious, particularly at watering places. They call in flight, attracting not only birds of the same species but other sand grouse as well. In the past, drinking flocks might number many hundreds and, occasionally, several thousand birds.

Breeding is, to a large extent, determined by rainfall—in other words—the availability of food. The nest is a simple scrape on the bare ground, sometimes in the shelter of a stone or shrub. The female incubates by day, and the male by night. The food is chiefly plant matter, shoots of desert grasses, and seeds. Chicks are not fed by their parents but are shown what to eat by the latter pecking at suitable kinds of food. Water is provided to chicks by a unique method: the male soaks his belly feathers during his daily drink, and the water retained is taken from the plumage by the chicks upon his return to the nest. The feathers of the belly in both sexes are specially adapted for this purpose, as the insides of these feathers against the body are equipped with microscopic filaments suitable for retaining water, and are areas where evaporation is reduced to a minimum during a bird’s flight. Females do not generally soak their bellies, apparently only doing so if the mate has been killed or when the age of the young requires more water than the carrying capacity of the male. Studies appear to show, however, that the distance over which water can be carried in this manner is limited to about 30 km. The young can fly to water like the adults after the first molt, when they are about four to five weeks old.

It is interesting to note that Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi described this bird, which he called by its Arabic name qaṭāt, as being very smart (saḵt zirak), “so much so that it conceals its eggs in the sand in the desert, and after a space of time finds its way to them [again].” He also mentions the belief in the medicinal benefits of this bird: “Its blood rubbed on the body cures ringworm of the scalp. … Its flesh is beneficial in dropsy and obstructions of the liver, and in corruption of humors. The ashes of its bones mixed with olive oil will cause hair to grow on any part where it is applied as an ointment” (pp. 118-19; tr., pp. 85-86).

Bibliography:

Mark Beaman and Steve Madge, Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic, London and Princeton, 1998.

Bruce Campbell, and Elizabeth Lack, A New Dictionary of Birds, The British Ornithologists’ Union, London, 1985.

Eskandar Firouz, Ḥayāt-e waḥš-e Irān: mohradārān, Tehran, 1999, pp. 276-77.

Idem, The Complete Fauna of Iran, London and New York, 2005, pp. 150-51.

Jamšid Manṣuri, Koliyāt-e paranda-šenāsi, Tehran, 2000.

Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi, Nozhat al-qolub, partial ed. and tr. JohnStephensonas The Zoological Section of the Nuzhatu-l-qulub of Hamdullah al-Mustaufi al-Qazwini,London. 1928.

Richard Frank Porter, Steen Christensen, and P. Schiermaker-Hansen, Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East, London, 1996.

D. A. Scott, H. Morawwej Hamadāni, and A. Adhami Mirḥosayni, Parandagān-e Irān/The Birds of Iran, Tehran, 1975 (in Persian, with Latin, English and French names).

(Eskandar Firouz)

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