Indian Roller or Neelkanth – The Shiva Among Birds

Uday Kumar Varma

Indian Roller: Photo ©Sachin Kumar Bhagat

The Indian Roller, commonly known as Neelkanth is, in Indian context, not a bird, it’s a sentiment, a symbol of faith. Its divine nexus to Lord Shiva- the Blue Throated God- evidently apocryphal, may be illusory, as its throat is nothing but blue. And yet, it is deemed a harbinger of good luck. Sighting it is taken as an auspicious omen. The cultural and emotional perch, therefore, that it enjoys stations it in a category at once unique and lofted. Never to be missed for its graceful beauty and the azure bright brilliance that its wings offer, while in flight under the open sky, is a treat to eyes and an immensely soulful sight. Read about this very Indian bird, in my series on Common Indian Birds, in the accompanying piece.

Neelkanth literally means one with a blue throat or neck. In Indian mythology, Lord Shiva is called ‘Neelkanth”. He is called so because after the churning of the sea when poison fulminated from the bowels of the sea, no one was able to withstand this deadly venom or poison. Devtas and Asuras – both ran away trying to escape the effects of this all destroying poison. The Gods- Vishnu and Brahma included, were no exception. It was Shiva then who decided to swallow this poison and decided to hold it in his throat, not allowing it to enter his system. Such was the intensity of this poison that the throat of Lord Shiva became dark blue under its effect and He was given a new name-NEELKANTH-THE BLUE THROATED ONE. We address someone who undergoes penance, punishment and suffering to protect others as Neelkanth. Its therefore, a very special name.

The Agile Blue Acrobat

And the bird-Neelkanth- is as remarkable. It derives this name because like Lord Shiva, it also in common perception, has a blue throat. In reality however, it is the resplendent blue wings dazzling in the light of the day that justifies its name. But it is also an extremely beautiful and attractive bird and its beauty and pulchritude has earned for itself a special place among birds.

Ornithologists prefer to call it the Indian Roller. Roller is a very English term. As it twists and turns swiftly in amazing acrobatic moves in the air, such striking is the sight that it was named Roller, the Indian Roller. And it had a far more sonorous name, Blue Jay, only a few years ago.

India Rollers are carnivores, arboreal, altricial, generally solitary, prey through ambush and do not migrate.



Photo ©Sachin Kumar Bhagat

It is called altricial because unlike many other birds, it rears its young as they hatch in an undeveloped state requiring care and feeding by parents.

They are elegant and sprightly, their weight usually between 160-180 grams. They measure 30-35 cm from bill to tail, but have a wing span of 65-74 cm, offering them the opportunity to display the spectacle of brilliantly blue flutter as they dive and frolic playfully under a beautiful sky.

And they live up to 17 years.

But A Bird Like Any Other

Coracias benghlensis, the scientific name of Neelkanth or Indian Roller points to an Indian origin. it is pale greenish brown in colour above and has a rufous-brown breast. Its deep tail has light blue sub-terminal band. It looks spectacular in flight with wings and tail lit up in Oxford blue wings and tail, which has a slightly different shade of blue bands-the Cambridge blue. It stays usually alone or in pair, most typically perched on overhead wires, telephone cables, bare branches and at times on earthen mounds. It feeds on insects, small lizards, frogs, small rodents etc. It glides over its prey but can also suddenly pounce on it. Its habitat ranges from open fields or countryside, orchards or even sparse forests. It is usually silent except at specific occasions of courting when it dives, tumbles and screeches wildly.

The Indian roller is a colourful bird best known for its aerobatic displays of males during the breeding season. The largest population occurs in India, and several states in India have chosen it as their state bird.

Distribution

Indian rollers are distributed across Asia, from Iraq and the United Arab Emirates in south-western Asia through the Indian Subcontinent, including Sri Lanka, Lakshadweep islands, and the Maldives Islands. The main habitat of these birds includes cultivated areas, thin forest, and grassland. They can also be found in parks and cities.

Habits and Lifestyle

Indian rollers are generally solitary birds that are often seen perched on prominent bare trees or wires. After waking up, they spend a few minutes preening followed by flying around their roosting sites. Favoured perches include electric or telegraphic wires but they also perch on trees and shrubs. Indian rollers perch mostly at a height of 3-9 m height from where they forage for ground insects. They may also use taller perches and obtain insects from the upper canopy of trees. During summer, Indian rollers may feed late in the evening and make use of artificial lights and feed on insects attracted to them. These birds communicate with each other using a harsh crow-like ‘chack’ sound. They also make a variety of other sounds, including metallic ‘boink’ calls and are especially vociferous during the breeding season. Nature has not been generous in granting them a sweet voice.

Mating and Breeding

The mating system in Indian rollers is unknown; however, generally, rollers are monogamous and have only one partner. During the breeding season, males attract females with an aerobatic display which includes twists and turns that give these birds their English name of “rollers”. They breed from March to June, slightly earlier in southern India. When the birds are perched they perform bill-up displays, bowing, allopreening, wing drooping, and tail fanning. Indian rollers nest in cavities made by tearing open rotten tree trunks or in cavities in the building. In some areas, they favour nesting in holes created by woodpeckers or wood-boring insects in palms. The cavity is usually unlined and is made up mainly of debris from the wood. The female normally lays about 3-5 eggs. The eggs are white and broad oval or nearly spherical. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 17 to 19 days. The chicks usually fledge and leave the nest after about a month after hatching.

Some Trivia

  • No other bird enjoys the distinction of being the state bird of not one state but of three, Odisha, Karnataka and Telangana.
  • The bill of Indian rollers has a curved upper edge and a hooked tip and there are also long rictal bristles at the base of their bill.
  • Indian rollers are attracted by fires and they also often follow tractors to feed on disturbed invertebrates.
  • Indian rollers are attracted to swarms of winged termites, and as many as 40 birds have been seen to perch on a 70-meter stretch of electric wires to feast on this prey.
  • Indian rollers bathe in open water by plunge-diving into it. This behaviour is often interpreted as fishing but rollers may occasionally attempt fishing from water.
  • Adding chopped feathers of the Indian roller to grass and feeding them to cows was believed to increase their milk yield.

And Now Poetry

Its captivating looks, its majestic flight, its playful frolics, its athletic acrobatics – its whole being is a beautiful colourful and moving poetry. It may not be blue throated like Lord Shiva but His divinity and aura rubs on to this bird in such abundant measure that it never fails to mesmerise and invoke serenity and bliss and of course wonder. 

I am Shiva!

Why are you called Neelkanth?

Your throat is nowhere near Blue

You have never ingested

Anything even close to Poison

And there is by far

No connection whatsoever

With the Holiest of the Holy-Lord Shiva!

Yes, I don’t have a blue around my neck

And I prey on insects and worms

No one ever offered me a cup of poison

(As if I would have accepted it)

Holy? Yes, I am

In my own sphere of existence

And I claim no affinity to Your Mahadeva!

Yet, as I flutter my wings

In the limitless expanse of sky

A brilliant blue scatters around me

Radiating azure light

Mesmerising the beholder

A more beautiful spectacle

Have you witnessed ever?

What is God?

If not beauty

What is divinity?

If not the grace and dignity

What is Shiva?

If not Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram

How can you miss it?

So, my human friends,

Stop finding gods in birds

Stop seeking resemblances

Love and appreciate the pristine

Unalloyed Unsullied simple lives

Of us, free of encumbrances and karmas

Shiva is me, I am Shiva!

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.


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