Backyard Birding: A prance of Prinias

Prinias such as Rufous-fronted Prinia, Graceful Prinia, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Hill Prinia, Black-throated Prinia and Himalayan Prinia are unlikely to be found in backyard birding by a novice birder

Ashy Prinia
Ashy Prinia

Lt Gen U K Sharma, AVSM (Retd)

The birds this week are the Prinias. The genus belongs to a family of small passerine birds called Cisticolidae. They were earlier also called wren-warblers, but this term is no longer used. They are small, drab grey-to-brown colored insectivorous birds often found in open scrub lands and lightly wooded country, hunting for insects. They have short wings but rather long, graduated tails for their overall size.

The tail is often held cocked up. What the birds lack in colour is more than made up by their sheer agility as they flit from spot to spot. They move around singly or in small flocks. When I was looking for a collective noun to describe their small flocks, I could not find any. I have therefore invented one- a prance of prinias!

Jungle Prinia
Jungle Prinia

The name Prinia is derived from the Javanese word prinya that describes the local name for one of their species called the Bar-winged Prinia. Prinias are old world birds found in the tropics and sub-tropical regions of Africa and Asia.

On the Indian subcontinent, no less than 12 different species are found but some of these are limited in their geographical distribution and therefore, not seen during backyard birding. I will endeavour to describe the commoner species first and make a passing mention of the less common ones. Photographing them can be an ordeal as the birds are rather restless and skip around in the blink of an eye.

Plain Prinia
Plain Prinia

The first bird I would like to describe is Plain Prinia (Priniainornata). As the name suggests, it is a rather plain grey-brown bird with a prominent white supercilium and whitish underparts. The tail is longer and the upper parts are a warmer brown in non-breeding birds. The bird is a resident in almost the entire subcontinent and has a typical slightly curved slender bill eminently suited to picking up insects. It has a loud, wheezy trill that betrays it from a distance.

We also have Ashy Prinia (Priniasocialis) that is often found close to human habitation. It has slate-grey crown and mantle in breeding plumage, a red iris and a short white supercilium which may even be entirely absent. The underparts have a warm buff wash. The subspecies found in Northeast India and Sri Lanka are a darker slate grey compared with the rest of peninsular India. The bird is not seen in Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir as well as Pakistan.

Another species with a wide area of distribution is the Jungle Prinia (Prinia sylvatica). Found all over the peninsular India and the foothills in the NW, it is a small and particularly restless bird that is found in open scrub lands. A mere 13 cm in size, its supercilium is less distinct than that of Plain Prinia. It is slightly stouter in structure with a stronger bill. The breeding bird is grey overall and has a black bill. The non-breeding bird is more rufescent and has a longer and sturdier tail. The song is rather loud and easily draws attention of the birders.

Grey-breasted Prinia (Priniahodgsonii) is another widely distributed species that also covers a fair area of the Northeast. The breeding bird has a grey crown and upper parts and a distinct grey breast band which is rather dark in subspecies Prinia pectoralis. The non-breeding bird is a warmer brown in upper parts with either no or faint and indistinct grey band on the breast. The bill is fine and delicate and the tail is shorter than other prinias.

What can be stated with certainty is that if you have seen a Prinia once, hopping and skipping around with that long tail following it, you are not likely to forget the bird. You then wish to graduate to identifying individual prinias based on their special features and you wish to see a real prance of Prinias prancing around in tall grass or scrub.

Go look for them!

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