Subdesert mesite -- 本氏拟鹑 (Monias benschi)

Subdesert mesite running through forest scrub
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Subdesert mesite fact file

Subdesert mesite description

GenusMonias (1)

Mesites, a family of terrestrial birds found only in Madagascar, are considered primitive forms of the rail (2). The subdesert mesite, named after its habitat, has greyish-brown plumage on the back, and white underparts with distinctive black spotting (2) (3). The greyish-brown head has a long, thin, white stripe over the eye (3), and the downward-curved bill is red with a black tip (2). The female subdesert mesite differs from the male by the bold, reddish-brown markings on the white chin, throat and chest. Juveniles have more subdued plumage and the tail is shorter than the long, layered tail of the adults (2).

Monias de Bensch.
Length: 32 cm (2)

Subdesert mesite biology

This terrestrial bird moves around in groups of three to six, sometimes as many as ten, individuals. As they walk around together, sometimes deliberately with their heads moving forward and backwards, sometimes rapidly and constantly changing direction, they frequently stop to probe patches of bare sandy soil with their bill (2), or rummage in leaf litter (4). The subdesert mesite feeds on invertebrates, as well as small fruits and seeds (2), and may dig below the soil surface to find a meal, leaving characteristic dimples in the ground (3).

If alarmed or threatened, the group remains close as they run swiftly away, or a bird may fly to perch on a branch to escape danger (2). The only other time this bird is observed flying is to reach a roost site or nest (4), which are situated in bushes or trees a few metres off the ground (2).

The nest of the subdesert mesite is a simple, shallow platform of a few interwoven twigs with leaves and bark (2) (3). Nesting occurs between November and January (2) (3), when a clutch of one to two whitish eggs, speckled with brown and grey, are laid (2). Both the male and female share in the tasks of incubation, feeding and caring for the young (3).


Subdesert mesite range

Endemic to Madagascar, the subdesert mesite occurs only in a narrow coastal strip in the south-west, lying between the River Mangoky to the north and the River Fiherenana to the south. This strip measures 200 kilometres long, 30 to 60 kilometres wide (4), and is bordered by the coast on the west and the start of the hills on the east (3).


Subdesert mesite habitat

The subdesert mesite inhabits dry thicket and spiny forest on sandy soil (3) (4), with an abundance of dead leaf litter (2). It occurs at elevations from sea-level up to 130 metres, and is believed to tolerate disturbed or degraded habitat, but avoids areas which lack any shade (3).


Subdesert mesite status

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Subdesert mesite threats

The most significant threat to this Vulnerable bird is the destruction of its habitat. The area of spiny forest in this region declined by 15.6 per cent between 1962 and 1999 overall, but by around 28 per cent in the eastern part of the species’ range. The forest is cleared for crops, charcoal production, grazing by goats, and for timber (3) (4). Furthermore, the subdesert mesite is also impacted by predation by rats and dogs (4) (3), and hunters occasionally take adult birds from their nests (3).


Subdesert mesite conservation

Unfortunately, no protected areas occur within the range of the subdesert mesite and there are no known conservation measures in place (3). While there are large areas that have few human inhabitants (3), and therefore presumably remain more intact, the spiny forests of south-west Madagascar are in great need of some protection (4); a measure which will benefit the subdesert mesite and the other species of this coastal habitat

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

For further information on the subdesert mesite see:

  • Tobias, J.A. and Seddon, N. (2002) Estimating population size in the subdesert mesite (Monias benschi): new methods and implications for conservation. Biological Conservation, 108(2): 199-212.

For more information on this and other bird species please see:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:


A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
The act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Animals with no backbone.


  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2007)
  2. Langrand, O. (1990) Guide to the Birds of Madagascar. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. BirdLife International (May, 2008)

Image credit

Subdesert mesite running through forest scrub  
Subdesert mesite running through forest scrub

© Martin Withers /

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