After surveying Namadachilume and Devarayanadurga areas in Tumkur District around the year-end and the new year, when he made important observations about the mating habits of Alpine Swifts, Salim Ali took his Mysore Ornithological Survey to the Chitradurga District for its eighth leg. The Alpine Swifts’ (Micropus melba) mating habits that he observed at Devarayanadurga were something that had not been recorded before.
Standing on the rocky summit at 1268 m, towering above Yoganarasimha Temple at Devarayanadurga Hill, Salim Ali observed Alpine Swifts swirling and twirling around him almost within gunshot range, as the sun started to set. The birds rose steadily higher as the sun went down, evidently due to the fact that their insect prey kept rising higher to remain in the warmth of the sunlight. During the day, he had observed several pairs mating on the wing, mid-air. During the act, both the male and female swifts whirled around, tumbling down slowly, parachuting through the sky while still locked in copula, for about 100 ft or so, with outstretched but motionless wings, before splitting and flying their separate ways.
Camping at Hiriyur, Salim Ali made visits to Vanivilas Sagar and Marikanive, where on January 08, 1940, he came across a covey of quails on brick-red soil, in a scraggy grass-covered stony terrain. When he shot with dust cartridges, all the quails, but for a male, escaped. Much to his surprise, he noticed the apatetic colouration of the plumage of the bird he had shot, matching very closely with the brick-red soil of the area: something he had never seen before. Not content with just the male he collected, he returned to Marikanive two days later and collected four more of these quails. The discovery of the remarkable apatetic colouration of these quails was made more interesting by the collection of a sample of the bright brick-red soil on which the new race was found, and with which the colouration of their plumage agreed perfectly. In all, the series of these unusual Rock Bush Quails he collected consisted of two adult males, two immature males which had largely assumed adult plumage, and a juvenile female.
While it was Salim Ali who collected the specimens of this unusual quail, it was actually Hugh Whistler—who lived at Caldbec House, Battle, Sussex, England—to whom Salim Ali sent the specimens of these bright brick-red quails along with the soil sample, who made sense out of this most important discovery of the Mysore Bird Survey. Hugh Whistler, a pioneer in Indian ornithology, found that these quails were far deeper red than the others of their kind, more specifically, like a deep reddish race of the Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica vidali) that he had described from South Konkan in 1936. This male holotype with which Whistler described a new subspecies, Perdicula argoondah salimalii—named after Salim Ali, its discoverer—is currently preserved at the Natural History Museum at Tring, U.K.
The adult male quails that Salim Ali collected had their whole upper plumage, wings and tails bright brick-red, similar to the colour of the forehead of the normal Rock Bush Quail (Perdicula argoondah argoondah), the typical race. The forehead and a line above the buff superciliary streak are unmarked; the rest of the upper plumage is irregularly barred with black and dark brown, and streaked and mottled with buff in an irregular manner, which is typical of this new subspecies. The lower plumage is similar to that of the typical race, but slightly warmer in tint, being washed with brick-red on the flanks, lower abdomen and undertail coverts.
The most telling difference is that the females of this new race have their upper parts very similar to adult males, with the dark barring largely absent, but the pale buff shaft lines on the feathers terminating in buff, triangular terminal spots as seen in the males as well, found on the mantle, scapulars and tertiaries. The whole lower plumage of the female is warm buff, tinged with brick-red.
Since the discovery of the apatetically coloured Rock Bush Quail—which Whistler named Perdicula argoondha salimaliii (Salim Ali’s Rock Bush Quail), which Salim Ali preferred to call Laterite Rock Bush Quail—no efforts were made to look for the species by anyone, and no further collections were made from the region nor was the species conclusively photographed. Considering this, since 2007, I made several trips to Marikanive and Hiriyur, scouring the region with a band of Karnataka’s finest photographers, in an attempt to locate the birds and get the first photographs that show the key features of the species; the idea was that it would help form the basis for identifying similar individuals in other parts of Karnataka and elsewhere.
After surveying Namadachilume and Devarayanadurga, I travelled to Chitradurga District in January 2019, and camped at Hiriyur for the next leg of my Mysore Bird Survey. While I roamed the red soil areas of Marikanive and Hiriyur, walking miles under scorching sun, crisscrossing the terrain, I came across Laterite Rock Bush Quails on six occasions and observed 19 birds in all. In doing so, I looked specifically for the reddish females that were a dead giveaway, in the field identification of these birds in coveys. In all the instances, these quails were too quick and vanished with the purring of wings, showing their bright brick-red colouration. The very first birds I sighted were two females that were sheltered within the tangle of a Lantana hedge, in a cold, hazy dawn. As I chanced upon more of these Salim Ali quails, it was thrilling to observe these richly coloured birds, more particularly the females, as they ran helter-skelter, whirred away from me, and melted into the grass and bush terrain. These birds even have a local name as the villagers know them: kempu purrlakki (red quails, in Kannada).
Looking at these unusual apatetically coloured rock bush quails, there is this feeling that the birds are far more widespread than is known. Birders need to look for birds—where the upper plumage in males and the whole body in females are more uniformly coloured dark rufous, with the pale shaft streaks on the plumage ending in a triangular blotch and the lower belly is washed in rufous—in red soil areas. It was heartening to note that the Salim Ali’s Rock Bush Quail still survives with healthy populations in its type locality and in the areas surrounding Marikanive and Hiriyur. I have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before these birds get recorded and photographed in Chitradurga’s adjoining districts.
The very fact that skins of a pair of this subspecies were collected at Vijayanagara (Hampi) in Bellary District, by GC Shortrdige on July 20, 1912, gives credence to my opinion that the species is far more widespread than being found in Chitradurga District alone, and should be seen in places like Maidanahalli, Tumkur.