Justification of Red List Category
This species has not been recorded with certainty since 1876, despite a number of searches, and it may have been severely impacted by hunting and habitat degradation. However, it probably remains extant, because thorough surveys are still required, and the species may be difficult to detect (favouring dense grass and being reluctant to fly). In addition, there is a recent set of possible sightings around Naini Tal in 2003. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered.
The population is assumed to be tiny (fewer than 50 individuals and mature individuals) based on a paucity of specimens, and the failure of recent targeted surveys in recording evidence of the species.
Ophrysia superciliosa is known only from the western Himalayas in Uttaranchal, north-western India, where about a dozen specimens were collected near Mussooree and Naini Tal prior to 1877. Field observations during the mid-19th century suggest that it may have been relatively common, but it was certainly rare by the late 1800s, potentially indicating a population decline. The lack of confirmed records since then suggests that the species may now be extinct. However, there have been few well-organised searches, there were possible sightings near Suwakholi in 1984 (Negi 2006) and around Naini Tal in 2003, and a female was reported by a hunter in 2010 (H. S. Baral in litt. 2010). There is still reason to hope that a small population survives in remoter areas of the lower or middle Himalayan range, especially given the difficulty in detecting similar species.
It was recorded in long grass and scrub on steep hillsides, particularly south-facing slope crests, between 1,650 m and 2,400 m. Recorded as feeding on grass seeds and probably berries and insects (McGowan et al. 2015). Generally encountered in coveys of 6-12 birds, it was extremely elusive, never flying except when almost stepped on. It was unclear whether it is sedentary or a short-distance migrant. It was only recorded around Mussoorie and Naini Tal hill stations during the winter months, suggesting it may breed at higher altitudes. A possible sighting of a covey of birds was made on Benog Tibba near Mussoorie in the early 2000s (Bilimoria 2013). Five observations were made around Naini Tal in 2003 (McGowan et al. 2015). In 2010 a possible sighting by a local man was made of a female bird in a wheat field near riparian pine forest in west Nepal (Baral et al. 2013).
The species was last seen 60 years before independence, indicating that hunting levels during the colonial period contributed significantly to its decline. Widespread land-use changes thereafter, particularly open cast mining for limestone and related disturbance, are other likely contributory factors to its decline. Its contact call was apparently heard frequently in November and appears to have aided hunters to locate them. It is also hypothesised that habitat changes at lower elevations during the post-Pleistocene glaciation might have pushed subpopulations to suboptimal higher elevations, causing local extinctions.
Conservation Actions Underway
There have been a number of official and unofficial attempts to rediscover the species, covering some of the most suitable areas around Mussoorie and Naini Tal. However, none has yet been successful. In 2002 and 2010, surveys used posters, interviews with locals and habitat analyses to direct field searches, but failed to find definitive evidence of the species (Kalsi 2004, H. S. Baral in litt. 2010, Baral et al. 2013). Further surveys involving local communities are planned (M. M. Ghate in litt. 2010). The potential distribution of the species has been mapped, based on the habitat requirements of two similar species: Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallechi) and Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus). This work identified five large areas of potentially suitable habitat in Uttarakhand, India which should be surveyed (Dunn et al. 2015). The same study suggested that the species could still be extant, with an estimated year of extinction of 2023 (with confidence intervals of 1999 to 2120) (Dunn et al. 2015).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct surveys in the five areas of potentially suitable habitat identified by Dunn et al. 2015 in Uttarakhand, India. Conduct further surveys in areas supporting Cheer Pheasant Catreus wallichi, which has similar habitat requirements. Conduct interviews with local hunters, involving the state Forest Department, about possible locations for the species. Based on these interviews, continue a comprehensive series of field surveys, including in the vicinity of old sites (Budraj, Benog, Jharipani and Sher-ka-danda), over several seasons and following up recent local reports near Naini Tal. Provide posters and cash incentives to local people to stimulate search for the species (Baral et al. in prep.).
25 cm. Rather nondescript quail with red bill and legs. Male greyish overall, with black face and throat and white forehead and narrow supercilium. Female has dark-marked brown upperparts, buffish head-sides and underparts and contrasting dark mask and dark streaks on breast to vent. Similar spp. Female primarily told from other quails by combination of size, red bill and legs and heavy underpart streaking. Voice Shrill whistle in alarm.
Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Bird, J., Butchart, S., Davidson, P., Keane, A., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Khwaja, N., Martin, R & Ashpole, J
Baral, H., Ghate, M. & Kalsi, R.
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Ophrysia superciliosa. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 28/05/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 28/05/2020.