KING CROW 

Erect and majestic, against the clear blue January sky, sits the bird. It is imperious in its mien, the king of all that it surveys, from its perch on the branch of the drumstick tree. Its glossy black feathers lengthen into a long forked tail, like the regalia of a king. No wonder it carries the moniker of King Crow. But it is not related to the crow family.

Drongo
Drongo

This is the Black Drongo. It belongs to a distinct family the Dicrurus. Its scientific name is Dicrurus macrocercus. Dicrurus is derived from the Greek words dikros meaning forked, and ouros meaning tailed; macrosersus is from the Greek makrokerkos, where makros means long and kerkos means tail. It is this forked tail that is the distinctive feature of this bird. The body of the drongo is small (bulbul sized) while the tail is relatively long, giving it a graceful and regal appearance, not only when it is perched, but also when it flies with an undulating wave-like movement, alternating the flapping of wings, and gliding smoothly with wings held still. 

The Black Drongo can be seen in open areas—farmlands, grasslands, fields and even urban pockets, usually perched on poles and wires, or tree branches. These are favoured as they are good look outs for spotting prey. The Drongo is primarily an insect eater, on the alert for bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, cicadas, termites, moths and ants. The insects are snatched from the air with daring aerial displays—shooting up like an arrow, zooming down like a rocket, veering sharply to change direction—which are a delight to watch. Once caught, the prey is carried off by the Drongo, who with deft manoeuvres, clamps its catch under foot, and tears it to pieces before swallowing it. 

Drongos are also smart enough to avail of more easily available meals by being around when fields are being ploughed, or stubble is being burned, so as to feast on all the insects that are disturbed by this. They also hitch a ride on the back of grazing cattle, with the same purpose of feasting on the insects that fly up in the wake of the walking cattle. Thus Drongos help to control many agricultural pests, making them important biological pest-control agents, earning them the name ‘farmers’ friends’. 

The Drongo is not just agile in its movements, it has a versatile repertoire of calls—from harsh scolding calls to a range of sweet whistles. It is also a clever mimic, imitating the calls of other birds, so as to use this to its advantage in different ways. It can imitate sounds that make a flock of diverse birds believe that they are from the same flock; it will raise an alarm call that will cause others to abandon their food and flee, leaving the rest for the Drongo.  It is said that the Drongo perfectly mimics the call of a shikra which scares birds like mynas who fly away in panic, leaving the takings for the Drongo.

Despite its small size this bird is fearless, and can be aggressive, taking on larger species that may venture into its nesting territory. It is especially vigilant about keeping out crows who may poach their eggs. Thus being given the appropriate name of Kotwal or sentry in Hindi. The smaller birds take advantage of this vigil by also nesting safely in the ‘sphere of influence’ of this gutsy gatekeeper.  

The battle for supremacy between the freeloading crow and the feisty bird was vividly described by British civil servant and naturalist Edward Hamilton Aitken in his book The Common Birds of Bombay published in 1900. 

 “Its (Drongo’s) aim is true and its beak is sharp and its target is the back of the lawbreaker. The Crow is big enough to carry off its puny enemy and pick its bones, if it could catch it, but who can fight against a ‘bolt from the blue’? The first onset may, perhaps, be dodged, but the nimble bird wheels and rises and plunges again with derisive screams, again and again piling pain and humiliation on the abject fugitive till it has gone far beyond the forbidden limits. Then the King sails slowly back to its tree and resumes its undisputed reign.”

Little wonder then, that this bird, though no relative of the Common Crow, has earned the sobriquet King Crow. 

This agile and spunky little bird is equally celebrated for its cleverness. It displays these traits in a number of folk tales from different cultures and geographies—from South Africa to Australia to North East India. 

Here is one from the Shangani tribe of Zimbabwe.

A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. A call was sent to all birds to attend a meeting to determine the same. When he heard this, Pau the Ostrich was confident that being the largest bird, he would get this title. Gama the Eagle was equally sure that he was entitled to this, being the bird that could fly highest. The little birds also decided to compete. Thus birds of every shape, size and colour arrived at the meeting. The elders had a long and argumentative discussion to fix the criteria for selection. Finally they agreed that the bird who could stay in the air the longest would be designated as leader. 

Pau the ostrich, who could not even fly, stalked out in protest at this criterion. Many smaller birds who knew the limits of their ability and endurance dropped out, knowing that they could not match the powerful fliers. But Matengwane, the fork-tailed drongo, did not throw in the towel immediately, and quietly planned his strategy. The next morning when the big birds set off flying on their course, drongo lightly settled on the back of Gama the high flying eagle, and hid amongst its feathers. As the race went on, more and more birds began to drop out from exhaustion, until finally it was only Gama soaring in the sky. The confident eagle descended, and landed to cheers. Just as the elders were about to crown Gama as the leader, they noticed that there was still one bird flying in the sky— Matengwane the drongo! The clever hitchhiker had detached himself from his ride, just as Gama was landing, and remained the sole winged creature in the sky. And thus was the Drongo declared the leader of the birds!

Certainly no bird brain—the Drongo.

.–Mamata

Welcome Tenants

birdTwo weeks ago that I looked up from the road, I saw a largish structure on my roof. Intrigued, I went up to try to figure out what this large mud structure was. I first thought it was the hive of some kind of wasp. But looking at the parapet below the nest, I noticed some bird droppings. And it did not take too much mental work from there on to figure out it was a bird’s nest.

But ‘which bird?’ was the next question. Using conventional bird books, it is not easy to go from nest to bird, I realized. And since I had not sighted the bird, I could not go through that route. I knew it was probably a swift or swallow, so I googled based on that. And kind of figured out it was a Red-rumped Swallow, but could not be quite sure till a bird-watcher friend looked at the nest and confirmed it.

I haven’t met my tenants yet, but bird books assure me that they will be 16-17 cms in length, with generous amounts of rufous-orange on their wings and underparts, and forked tails. They will feed almost entirely on flying insects, catching them on the wing, at a height of up to 100 metres or so.

The amazing ‘encroachment’ on my terrace must have been built by both adults who would have collected mud as pellets in their bills, and worked for 5-15 days to build the flask-shaped nest with a  tunnel-like entrance. They would have lined it with soft grass and feathers.

I suspect the nest was built in the last mating season—between April and September, and 4-5 eggs may have been laid. They would have incubated the eggs for about 2 weeks, and the chicks would have been ready to fly out of their secure home in 26 days.

I missed all that.

But my bird-watcher friend has assured me that these birds tend to re-use their nests for a few years, so I hope to see them this spring!

–Meena

Tribute to India’s Birdman: Dr. Salim Ali

330px-Salim_ali_mnsSalim Ali’s birthday falls on 12 Nov. He was born in 1896 and passed away in 1987. He may be credited with single-handedly bringing ornithology to India. And this interest in ornithology, as it spread, led to interest in wildlife and biodiversity; in environmental issues; in conservation; and in sustainable development.

He inspired generations in India and created a culture of systematic and scientific study of wildlife. If his ‘Book of Indian Birds’ is the easy guide which every bird watcher starts with, the landmark ten volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan which he wrote with Dillon Ripley is the authoritative guide. Dr. Salim Ali was respected across the world, and decorated with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

On this his birth anniversary, here are excerpts from an interview of Dr. Salim Ali (when he was 85+ years of age!), with Dr. HSA Yahya of Aligarh Muslim University, and taken from http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/ envis/doc97html/biosalim24.html. My only contribution is to have picked out two sections that I found of particular interest.

MONEY MATTERS NOT A JOT

‘Then I told Prater ” look we have so many places in India and we know nothing about birds.”  Hyderabad for instance, was a complete blank on the ornithological map. So I said ” if you write to the British Residents who are really interested in these kinds of things we can probably get some financial support. I do not want any pay. I only want my expenses paid and I will be quite happy to go, study and collect birds.”So the Society got in touch with the Hyderabad Government which had largely British heads of Departments. They were very glad. But it is really quite laughable, the amount we asked for and which we got and in which I was able to complete the survey. I think for the whole of the Hyderabad State survey for six months we got about 6000 Rupees (NOTE: THIS WAS WAY BEFORE INDEPENDENCE!).  Yes, six thousand which included the food of the skinner, our own food, cost of travelling and everything (laughter)! We were able to do it with a lot of trouble, many of our camp shifts had to be done by bullock carts because there were no roads in the places where we were camping. After Hyderabad I did Kerala which was then two states, Cochin and Travancore. Then one after the other Central India, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. So all these were done under the same system: asking for small amounts and doing it. I could do it because I had the time, I mean, I was just doing it and nothing else and I did not have any ambition to try again for some bigger job somewhere and so on. Not because bigger jobs were not there and perhaps I would have not got them, but they were not in the line in which I was interested.’

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A LIKE-MINDED PARTNER IN FOLLOWING A PASSION

‘I tried all kinds of jobs for a long time. Finally, I said that, well, I have all these trainings and I have my chief interest in birds so why should I not do this on my own. My wife had a little money and I had a little investment and so on. Then we worked out and found that we had just enough if we left Bombay, which was very expensive and went to live in some quieter place which would give more facilities for bird study, we will be far happier. My great fortune was that my wife who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do. She insisted that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do. She said ” now we have enough to live quietly, we would go to some small place, I will be quite happy.” She was keen on poetry and Urdu and various kinds of reading and so on. Then she got very interested in birds too, and in outdoor life and in things she had never had any experience in England of.’

From: TRANSCRIPT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH SALIM ALI by Dr H S A Yahya Reader, Centre for wildlife & ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

–Meena

PS: ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’ his autobiography,  is a must-read.