A bully, a mimic, an attacker: On the Black Drongo

The Black Drongo protects itself in many ways from the big, bad world around

Published - January 31, 2020 01:05 pm IST

A Black Drongo perched on a board bearing its name

A Black Drongo perched on a board bearing its name

Back in 1928, an English police officer and ornithologist in India named Hugh Whistler, called it the King Crow, not because it was related to crows, but because it surpassed the menacing behaviour of the Corvidae (Crow) family. In fact, the Black Drongo belongs to a distinct family, the Dicrurus or the Drongos. The bird is a familiar sight in India, and attracts attention with its graceful shape and fearless attitude.

At about 28 cm, it has a black plumage, its glossiness bordering on blue iridescence in favourable light. It has a small white spot at the base of the bill gape (base of the bill), called a rictal spot, a distinguishing mark that separates the Black Drongo from others in the family. Sexes look alike and the bird has a red iris, with its bill and legs fashionably all black.

Its scientific name is Dicrurus macrocercus , where Dicrurus is derived from the Greek words dikros meaning forked, ouros meaning tailed, while macrocercus is from the Greek makrokerkos, with makros meaning long and kerkos meaning tail. In short, the bird has a long and gracefully deep forked tail, a characteristic feature of most Drongos in India.

Though the species prefers open areas such as farmlands, grasslands, forest edges, wetlands and fields, it is now a common sight with its familiar dark-ghost like silhouette, perched on electrical and phone wires around our homes. It waits there to dash into aerial displays and manoeuvres to catch insects during the day as well as the night, under street lights.

Black Drongo

Black Drongo

It eats termites, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and ants, making it primarily an insectivore, but they have been known to explore the possibility of preying on smaller birds, reptiles and even bats, making it quite the opportunist.

I was once leading a trail in Sultanpur, on the outskirts in Gurgaon, where farmers were burning crop stubble. Black Drongos sat in a ‘roung table conference’ just waiting for the insects to be repelled from the grasses on the field, so they could dart and grab. You may also find them accompanying herds of cattle in order to catch grasshoppers and other insects dislodged from the grasses. Certainly no bird brain!

The habit of being pugnacious in defence of its nest and territory by attacking all predaceous enemies, is quite similar to that of crows. It is a common sight to see these birds chase after crows in the air, swooping at them with an agility in flight only attained by falcons. This chase is accompanied by a series of angry chattering calls that attract the attention of the least observant species — humans! Their aggressive behaviour often sees them land on larger birds of prey, like falcons and eagles, and peck at them repeatedly to drive them away.

In areas outside Delhi-NCR where foxes and jackals exist, they’ll attack them too, with the same courage, earning themselves the name Kotwal (a police officer in Hindi). All this aggressive behaviour towards birds of prey and general marauders encourages gentle species like doves, orioles, and bulbuls to nest in the vicinity. These birds find protection in territory of drongos and thus prefer nesting in drongo territory.

Known to be enthusiastic mimics of the avian world, they are capable of producing a wide array of calls with the usual titu-titu , a two note call quite similar to that of the Shikra, a bird of prey, in order to either wade off other birds or sometimes to rob mynahs and egrets of their prey. They also try and mimic other bigger birds like the Indian Grey Hornbill, in order to ensure their safety.

The breeding season extends from April to August. Their nest is a broad, shallow cup of twigs and grass, lined neatly with cobwebs or fine grass, suspended in a horizontal fork of a tree, at a considerable height from the ground. Once the juveniles mature a little, the parents start training them for the real world.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India

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