3 Oct 2011

Podoces hendersoni - Mongolian Ground Jay

Podoces hendersoni

Referring to James A Jobling's "Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names" I find that  Podoces is Greek for "Swift-footed, quick"...

Jobling also reveals hendersoni to be a reference to Lt-Col George Henderson, 1837-1929, a British Army Explorer.

"Whose Bird?" by Bo Beolens and Mike Watkins is a bit more informative about Henderson, and much more revealing about what it meant to be a "British Army Explorer" in the middle of the 19th century.  

Henderson collected the first specimen of this Ground Jay during the 1870 British Mission from India to Yarkand (now in Xinjiang, China). 

It was during the era of "The Great Game" - the struggle between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia-  and Henderson was disguised as a merchant and calling himself "Ismail Khan"

One can assume, though, that he put his real name on the specimen label.

Podoces hendersoni

As well as Xinjiang, Mongolian Ground Jays are also widespread in northern Qinghai Province.  These photos were taken  in August 2011.

(Edited and added 7th Oct 2011)

Referring belatedly to "The Bird Collectors" by Barbara and Richard Mearns, I find that the 1870 Yarkand Mission is well-covered by them.

There are a couple of photos from Henderson's 1873 book "Lahore to Yarkand", including this one of him (left) and his companions Douglas Forsyth and Robert Shaw in disguise for their journey.

And a photo of one of their campsites in the Karakoram Range....

As it says in The Bird Collectors  - "Most of the journey was above 15,000 feet in an area so inhospitable that even at the height of summer there was little forage for the horses so they had to take extra feed... the three europeans had a retinue of nearly sixty men and 130 horses... ... a supply train of yaks failed to arrive and their food for the horses began to run out. Three ponies died from exhaustion and starvation. At night it was so cold some of the horses tried to get into the tents....

At Kitchik Yalik they made one of their important discoveries... "

Pseudopodoces humilis  

Originally called Hume's Ground Jay, (after Allan Octavian Hume the "Father of Indian Ornithology")it has recently been discovered through DNA analysis to be a kind of tit.  The scientific name is now Pseudopodoces humilis "Tibetan Ground-Tit" 

After descending to the deserts of what was then known as Chinese Turkestan they saw and collected the first specimens of Mongolian Ground Jay, Podoces hendersoni.   Which is where this posting started, I guess.

A busy period of foreign exploration of the Tibetan Plateau was just beginning, with ornithology just a pretext for mapping the landscape and trying to exert political influence.  Captain Nicholas Prjevalsky was to begin the first Russian Expedition to western China the same year.....


  1. Interesting stuff John, hey we're kind of following in the footsteps of these 19th century birding adventurers in Asia..............in a very loose sense..........

  2. Interesting stuff and very interesting bird!
    Really love its glossy tertials.

  3. Hi Stu, Ayuwat,

    Yes, we can enjoy the birds in their habitats and see the same mountain ranges.

    Getting to the habitat by 4WD - as we did - is definitely following in "a loose sense" as you mention!

    Personally, I'm much too "soft" to volunteer to experience a fraction of the hardships some of these guys endured.

    But for me, knowing something about the circumstances of the first specimens being collected really adds to my enjoyment of seeing the birds in their natural state.