Himalayan Quail: A Missing Bird Species for Over a Century in India

Himalayan Quail 

A Missing Bird Species for Over a Century in India

-Dr. Arvind Singh

Himalayan quail is one of the rarest species of bird on the planet native to India. It is a medium-sized bird belonging to the pheasant family and is scientifically known as Ophrysia superciliosa. The last confirm sighting of the Himalayan quail was way back in 1876. It is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Natural and Natural Resources (IUCN). 

Himalayan QuailSeveral groups consider Himalayan quail as extinct species. However wildlife experts and ornithologists are hopeful that the bird survives with small population in the lower or middle Himalayan range. Hence thorough surveys are still needed to detect the bird species. It is difficult to detect the bird species as it inhabits the dense grassland and rarely flies. Furthermore, Quail birds are also very difficult to spot in general due to camouflaging coloration and behavior.

Distribution Range:

Himalayan quail is found only in the mountains of Uttarakhand in North-west Himalayas where about a dozen specimens were collected near Mussoorie and Nainital prior to 1877. Field observations during the mid-19th century suggest that it may have been relatively common but it was rare by the late 1800s, indicating at population decline.

Physical Features:

Himalayan quails are small dark birds with distinctive red or yellow bill and legs and prominent white spots around the eyes. The length of the bird is about 45 cm. They have along covert tail which is longer than most of other quails. Males are dark grey with black streaks and a white forehead, and females are greyish brown with dark streaks.

Habitat and Ecology:

Himalayan quails prefer high altitudes. They inhabit tall grass and scrubs on steep hillsides, particularly south-facing slopes between the altitudes of 1,650-2,400 m.
Himalayan quails generally live in groups of 6-12 birds and are mainly adapted to walking. They are extremely elusive and reluctant to fly. They only fly when just about to be stepped on. Himalayan quail feeds on the seeds of grasses and probably berries and insects.

They breed at higher altitudes in winter season. Nothing is known about their reproduction.

Threats to Survival:

Hunting and land conversions are the two main threats to the survival of the bird species. The species was last seen 60 years before independence, suggesting that hunting levels during the colonial period contributed significantly to the decline of this bird species. Its contact call was frequently heard in November and appears to have aided hunters to locate them.

Widespread land-use changes especially the open cast mining for limestone and related disturbances have also contributed in decline of the bird species.

It is also hypothesized that habitat changes at lower elevations during the post Pleistocene glaciation might have pushed sub-populations to sub-optimal higher elevations causing local extinctions.


Several official and unofficial attempts have been made in the past around Nainital and Mussoorie to rediscover this lost bird species. However, none of them were successful. Around 1980 the great Indian Ornithologist Salim Ali surveyed the most suitable areas around Mussoorie but had limited time and only one dog to flush his quarry. His further plan to mount an expanded search for Himalayan quail in 1984 never came to fruition perhaps due to health reasons.

Some latest surveys conducted in 2002 and 2010 used posters, interviews with local people and habitat analyses to direct field searches failed to find evidence of the bird species.

The following conservation actions have been proposed for the Himalayan quail:

1. To conduct further surveys in areas supporting Cheer pheasant (Catreus wallichii) which has similar habitat requirements. 

2. To conduct interviews with local hunters, involving the Uttarakhand Forest Department about possible locations for the species. 

3. To continue a comprehensive series of field surveys on the basis of interviews including in the vicinity of old sites over several seasons and following up recent local reports near Nainital. 

4. To provide posters and cash incentives to local people to motivate search for the species.


Conclusively it can be said that Himalayan quail is rarest bird species of the world not sighted for over a century. Now questions are being raised regarding the survival of bird species. Hence, there is urgent need to launch a massive search operation program in the lower and middle Himalayan range of Uttarakhand state involving the Forest Department, ornithologists, wildlife experts, local people and hunters to explore the Himalayan quail to unveil the various mysteries relating to the bird species.

Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with area of specialization in Ecology. He is an dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen of published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India.

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