The Himalayan Quail, Ophrysia superciliosa, is a medium-sized quail belonging to the pheasant family. It was last reported in 1876 and is feared extinct.
This species is known with certainty from only 2 locations (and 12 specimens) in the western Himalayas in Uttarakhand, north-west India. The last verifiable record was in 1876, despite a number of searches, but its continued survival cannot be ruled out as it may be difficult to detect.
The red bill and legs of this small dark quail and white spots before and after the eye make it distinctive. The male is dark grey with bleak streaks and a white forehead and supercilium. The female is brownish with dark streaks and greyish brow. Like the male it has a white spot in front of the eye and a larger one behind the eye. It is believed to fly only when flushed at close quarters and was found in coveys of five or six. The habitat was steep hillsides covered by long grass.
This quail has long tail coverts and the tail is longer than for most quails.
The species was described in 1846 by J. E. Gray from living specimens in the collection of the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, and he gave the locality as "India" with a query. It was not until 1865 that it was first found in the wild by Kenneth Mackinnon who shot a pair in November, in a hollow between Budraj and Benog, behind Mussoorie, at about 6,000 feet (1,800 m) elevation. Two years later, again in November, five specimens were obtained by a group near Jerepani. In December 1876, Major G. Carwithen obtained a specimen from the eastern slopes of Sher-ka-danda, close to Naini Tal, at an elevation of 7,000 feet (2,100 m). Frank Finn suggested that it was a migratory bird, arriving in winter, although expressing doubts on account of the short wings. The birds near Mussoorie as observed by Hutton and others occurred in small coveys of six to ten, that kept to high grass and scrub, fed on seeds of grass, were difficult to flush, and had a shrill whistling note when flushed. They appeared to arrive about November, but in one case stayed as late as June, after which they disappeared.
Specimens and records
Specimens are known from
- Uttar Pradesh Mussoorie (1936, 2 specimens, type locality)
- 5 km to the north-west of Mussorie, between Badraj and Benog, 1,850 m. (November 1865, 1 specimen, 1 lost)
- Jhuripani, 5 km to the south of Mussorie, c.1,650 m (November - June 1867/68 or 1896/70, 4 specimens total)
- Eastern slopes of Sherkadanda near Nainital, 2,100 m (December 1876, 1 specimen)
By 1904 it was already considered as a rarity. One extant pre-1950 specimen and several lost ones of an unknown date are from undetermined locations.
Unconfirmed records are from
- Dailekh district of Nepal (circumstantial, 1952, see below)
- East Kumaon near Lohagat village (circumstantial, 1952)
- Jhuripani (seen, 1970)
- Near Suwakholi in the Mussoorie hills (seen, late 1970s, 1984)
- Northeastern India? (seen, 1993)
- Nainital, Kumaon Hills (seen, 2003)
Sidney Dillon Ripley (1952) records a local bird name sano kalo titra ("small black/dusky partridge") from the Dailekh district of Nepal. The only bird from the general area that seems to fit such a description would be a male Himalayan Quail.
All records of the Himalayan Quail are in the altitude range of 1,650 to 2,400 m. They were seen in patches of tall grass ("high jungle grass", "tall seed-grass", see terai) and brushwood on steep hillsides, particularly on the crests of south- or east-facing slopes. It probably bred around September. The June specimen is a yearling male in moult.
A. O. Hume (Stray Feathers 9 [1880 or 1881]: 467-471) suggested that it was similar in habit to the Manipur Bush-quails Perdicula manipurensis in that it was seen very rarely, except at dawn or dusk, keeping to tall grassland, relying on its legs rather than its wings for escape and only flying when closely approached. The fluffy, soft plumage suggests it was adaptated for low temperatures; it has been suggested that the birds migrated north and uphill in the summer months to the higher mountains, but the shape and size of its wings do not suggest a bird capable of flying long distances.
Recent Indian records seem unlikely given that the area is well populated, the habitat extensively altered by human activity, and recent surveys have not located birds. Tourism is a key economic factor of the region, so it seems unlikely that these birds could escape the eyes of observers. However there is no evidence and the habitat available here is no longer suitable due to the population pressure. The early 1990s "sightings" seem to have been based on a misidentification; the habitat type in the area in question is different (conifer forest) anyway.
Judging from the species' known distribution and habitat requirements, it is entirely possible that it was present in Nepal too or even still is. As most of the local population is vegetarian for religious reasons and habitat destruction has not been as pronounced as in neighboring India, Western Nepal is the most likely place for a remnant population of the Himalayan Quail to exist today. However, due to Ripley's reference only coming to attention a few years ago and the district being a common scene of clashes between the CPN(M) - which has a long-standing presence in the area - and government forces (see Nepal Civil War) and thus not safe for foreigners, there has been no attempt to follow up on this record. With the CPN(M), despite its Maoist ideology, being rather tolerant of local beliefs and customs and habitat destruction being comparatively slight (the only threat would be unsustainable collecting of firewood and some hunting activity by guerilla and Army forces), a remaining population of this species - if it indeed still exists there - is probably not under immediate threat of extinction.