Birds – The Madagascar Mesite

A very peculiar bird indeed is this so-called Mesite (Mesoenas variegata) of Madagascar, and quite in accord with many of the other anomalous life forms that at one time, or still, inhabit that far-away island. It is a small, quite Rail-like bird about ten and a half inches long, with a slender Grebe-like bill about the length of the head, and very strong legs and feet, with four toes, the posterior one of which is on the same level as the others; all the toes are provided with strong, rather sharp claws. The nostrils are very peculiar in that they are long, linear, concave, upturned slits, which extend for more than half the length of the bill, and are covered above by a membranous valve-like lid. The wings are short and rounded, with ten primaries, which are slightly exceeded in length by the inner secondaries, while the tail is rather long and broad, and composed of sixteen feathers. Another remarkable feature is the presence of five pairs of powder-down patches, two of which are dorsal, two ventral, and one lateral, and there are also four bare tracts on the body which extend for some distance up the neck. The skeleton possesses some curious combinations, such as the slit (schizognathous) type of palate, the breast-bone with a deep notch on each side of the posterior margin, etc., which seem to suggest various relationships.

The coloration of the sexes is so different that before they were fully known it was thought that two species were represented, and they were so named. Thus the adult female is a clear chestnut above, slightly more dusky on the head, with the cheeks, ear-coverts, and sides of the neck bright rufous, with a dusky band bordered by a white streak from the ear-coverts down the sides of the neck. The throat and breast are rufous, slightly mottled with dark ashy margins to some of the feathers, while the sides of the body are dull reddish brown. The full-plumaged male is maroon-rufous shaded with black above, becoming darker on the head, the cheeks crossed by two bands of whitish alternating with bands of rufous, while below, the throat, breast, and abdomen are white sprinkled with black spots and the flanks rufous barred with brown.

This bird, according to Messrs. Milne-Edwards and Grandidier, is not uncommon on the eastern slope of the mountain chain of Madagascar, where it is observed on the ground among tangled vegetation. It does not fly but runs with great rapidity, stopping suddenly now and again with elevated head to gaze at the intruder, or to utter its low, dull cry of hou-hou. It feeds on various insects and ants, and constructs its nest of rushes, Pandanus leaves, and interlaced branchlets, on the ground. According to native tradition, if the nest, which is placed on low ground, is threatened with inundation, the birds pull it to a place of safety beyond the reach of the water. It is said to be much attached to its young, and if these be taken from the nest will follow the despoilers through the forest and even into the village, and on account of this affectionate regard for its progeny is held sacred by the natives. The eggs and nestlings do not appear to have been seen by scientific eyes.

There are grave differences of opinion as to the proper systematic position of Mesonas, and it has been variously placed among the Rails, Cranes, and even with the singing birds (Oscines), but all things considered, according to Gadow, it is perhaps best considered as referable to an anomalous suborder of the present group.