Black Drongo – The King Crow or the Kotwal

Uday Kumar Varma

The King-Crow, Drongo is the uncommonest common bird. Graceful and dignified in its beautiful and glossy all- black exterior, its demeanour is royal but its temperament is even more imperious. Just try to transgress into its territory, and experience the relentless unleashing of its displeasure and fury instantaneously. No wonder its called “Kotwal” (policeman) and many birds prefer to lay their eggs in their vicinity because they are assured of complete protection from any intruder.

One has heard of King Cobras but a King Crow? Crows brook no rivalry. They are not only intelligent and industrious, they are invidious and artful too.

And if one were to recollect the story of ‘Kakolukiyam’  of Panchtantra (Of crows and Owls), one would concede, even if with reluctant respect, the unusual cunning and craftiness that the crows have acquired over millennia of evolution. And how they ensured the decimation of a cerebrally superior Owls, consigned them to nocturnal realm, and bestowed upon them a stamp of stupidity, howsoever, unfair and unfounded, remains a masterclass in politics and strategy of a war.

And who can ever not remember with reverence the legendry ‘Kagbhushundi’, the very epitome of wisdom and sagacity and the ultimate repository of knowledge. The conversations between him and another great bird, ‘Garuda’, offers one of the finest and enlightening insights into the Indian religious and moral tradition.

And yet, they allowed someone else to be known as ‘King Crow’.

Because like a true emperor you don’t allow anyone else to invade or transgress your territory. You are known for your aggressive behaviour towards much larger birds, even crows, never hesitating to dive-bomb any bird of prey that invades its territory. This behaviour earns it the informal name of king crow. And this reputation helps smaller birds who often nest in the well-guarded vicinity of a nesting black drongo.

And it is also referred to as ‘Bhujanga’, the mention of which embellishes many texts of yore. Its old scientific name, Bhuchanga albirictus, was derived from this name, ‘Bhujanga’

And yet it is not universally loved. The bee- keepers across the world may hate them because they love bees and decimates them. But they are also overwhelmingly loved as farmers across nationalities attract them to their fields using artificial perches in fields to encourage them to feed on pest insects.

Description

The black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) is a small Asian passerine bird of the drongo family Dicruridae. It is a common resident breeder in much of tropical southern Asia from southwest Iran through India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka east to southern China and Indonesia and accidental visitor of Japan.

The black drongo was once considered a subspecies of the fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)a close relative that diverged relatively recently. The two are now considered distinct species, with the fork-tailed drongo restricted to Africa and separated from the Asian range of the black drongo. Seven subspecies have been identified.

It is an all- black glossy bird with a distinctive forked tail and measures 28 cm (11 in) in length. It feeds on insects, and is common in open agricultural areas and light forest throughout its range, perching conspicuously on a bare perch or along power or telephone lines. Adults usually have a small white spot at the base of the gape. The iris is dark brown (not crimson as in the similar ashy drongo). The sexes cannot be told apart in the field. Juveniles are brownish and may have some white barring or speckling towards the belly and vent, and can be mistaken for the white-bellied drongo. First-year birds have white tips to the feathers of the belly, while second-years have these white-tipped feathers restricted to the vent.

Their aggression is matchless and although only 28 cm (11 in) in length, they  attack much larger species that enter their nesting territory, including crows and birds of prey. This behaviour led to their being christened by the title of  King Crow.

They fly with strong flaps of the wing and are capable of fast maneuvers that enable them to capture flying insects.  With short legs, they sit upright on thorny bushes, bare perches or electricity wires. They may also perch on grazing animals.

This is one of the commonest birds seen during road or rail travel in India. Usually solitary but occasionally in small flocks. It also very commonly rides on the back of grazing cattle. It is not uncommon to see it in trail of tractors, grass cutters picking up insects and worms from the furrows left behind by these machines. While its staple food is insects and worms, it also feeds on nectar of fruits and flowers. Its habitat is orchards, open countryside, cultivable fields.

History

Known to dominate fellow birds in the vicinity of their abode and given their predatory nature, Drongos were introduced just before the Second World War from Taiwan to the island of Rota to help in the control of insects. It is believed that they dispersed over the sea to the island of Guam in the 1950s. By 1967, they were the fourth most commonly seen birds in roadside counts on Guam and are today the most abundant bird there.  Predation by and competition from black drongos have been suggested as factors in the decline of endemic bird species such as the Rota bridled white-eye and the Guam flycatcher.

This reputation still lingers.

Racket-Tailed Drongo

But the best and the most spectacular specimen that raises its beauty and grace to a really superior perch is the Racket-Tailed Drongo. Its distinguishing feature is its long, elegant and eye-catching stream –lined  body of which a tail has become the most attractive feature. Its tail as unique as somewhat that of Paradise Fly-catcher and so superbly crafted like a lawn tennis racket, offers a study in bodily attraction whether in silhouette or in frontal exposition.  

Food and Foraging

Black drongos become active very early at dawn and roost later than many other birds. They feed mainly on insects such as grasshoppers, cicadas, termites, wasps, bees, ants, moths, beetles and dragonflies. They sometimes fly close to tree branches, attempting to disturb any insects that may be present. They congregate in fields being ploughed, picking up exposed caterpillars and beetle grubs. As many as 35 birds have been seen at such congregations. They are also attracted to fires in scrub and grasslands habitats where insects are disturbed. They appear to avoid flies.

They associate with common mynas, cattle egrets and other birds that share a similar diet and habitat. Drongos benefit from this association and are more successful in their foraging. There is only partial overlap in the insect prey sought by mynas and drongos although in rare instances the drongos may rob prey from mynas. 

Deceptor par excellence

They are capable of producing a wide range of calls but a common call is a two note tee-hee call resembling that of the shikra (Accipiter badius).

It is said that they imitate the call of the shikra so as to put mynas to flight and then to steal prey. Similar behaviour, using false alarm calls, has been noted in the fork-tailed drongo. There are some cases of the black drongo preying on small birds, reptiles, or maybe even bats. It has been suggested that they may feed on birds more intensively on migration. An individual on a migratory stop-over island in Korea caught several birds one after the other, killing them by striking at the back of the head and neck and feeding selectively on parts, especially the brain. They have also been on occasion seen feeding on fish Flowers of trees such as Erythrina and Bombax may be visited for water and nectar and they are sometimes known to feed on grains. They are only rarely known to take larger arthropods such as scorpions and centipedes. They feed on milkweed butterflies that are often avoided by other predators and are known to feed late in the evening or night, often on insects attracted to artificial lights.

Nesting and Breeding

Their mating display is both vigorous and aesthetic. Black drongos breed mainly in February and March in southern India, and until August in other parts of the country. Males and females sing in the mornings during the breeding season. Courtship can include aerobatic chases and they may lock their wings and beaks together, with the pair sometimes falling to the ground. Displays may be made on the ground. Pair bonds are retained for a whole breeding season.

The nest is a cup made with a thin layer of sticks placed in the fork of branch, and is built in a week by both the male and female. Eggs are laid close to the first rains in April. The usual clutch is three or rarely four eggs laid in a cup nest placed in the fork of an outer branch of tree. Large leafy trees such as the jackfruit are preferred. The eggs are pale cream to red with spots and markings and are 26 mm (1.0 in) long and 19 mm (0.75 in) wide. The eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after 14 to 15 days.

Nestlings are brooded for the first five days, after which the young are capable of maintaining a fairly constant body temperature. A second clutch may be laid if the first is destroyed. Nests are sometimes built in telephone poles. A nesting territory of 0.003 to 0.012 km2 (0.3 to 1.2 hectares) is maintained.

Their habit of driving away predators from near their nests is believed to encourage other birds such as orioles, doves, pigeons, babblers, and especially bulbuls, to nest in the vicinity. In one study 18 of 40 nests had red-vented bulbuls nesting within 10 meters (33 ft.).An abnormal case of interspecific feeding with a red-vented bulbul feeding the chicks of a black drongo at their nest has been recorded.

Up-Bringing

Young birds have a yellowish-red gape. The feather follicles appear on the fourth day and pin feathers emerge after a week. Nestlings increase in weight steadily until they are 12 days old. The eyes open on the eighth day, the iris reddish-black while the gape turns red. The young leave the nest after about 16 to 20 days after hatching. They do not have the fork in the tail until three weeks. The parents continue to feed and protect them for a month. Young birds may beg for food for longer, but are often ignored or chased away by the adults. Birds reach breeding condition in about two years.

Culture and Legend

Drongos enjoy a privilege of having perhaps the largest number of synonyms- something denied to every other in its avian brotherhood. I have already mentioned that its older generic name of Buchanga was derived from the Hindi name of Bhujanga. The plethora of synonyms include srigunting hitam in Indonesia, Thampal in Pakistan, Gohalo/Kolaho in Baluchistan, Kalkalachi in Sindhi, Kotwal (policeman) in HindiFinga in Bengali; Phesu in Assamese; Cheiroi in Manipuri; Kosita/Kalo koshi in Gujarati; Ghosia in Marathi; Kajalapati in Oriya; Kari kuruvi (charcoal bird), Erettai valan (two tail) in Tamil; Passala poli gadu in Telugu; Aanaranji (elephant snatcher) in Malayalam; Kari bhujanga in Kannada and Kalu Kawuda in Sinhalese.

While this popularity establishes its pan-Indian presence, it’s improbable that any other bird commands such wide acceptability in so many local lingua.

The display of its aerobatic skills can be appreciated when it catches a leaf in mid-air after dropping it from a height.

A superstition in central India is that cattle would lose their horn if a newly fledged drongo alighted on it.

But the legend that indeed sets it apart from any other bird is when it reportedly brought water to Husayn ibn Ali, revered by Shī‘a Muslims. It thus enjoys a status bordering on divine and rarely accorded to a bird.

And Now a Poem

A Flash of Black

Beauty and Aggression

Never blended in such harmony

Merged so perfectly

In nature’s repertoire of

Sublime Creativity

In your form, O! Beautiful Drongo!

As you dive from a lofty perch

In a sudden sally

Like a flash of black lightening

Cutting through clear azure sky

A burst of radiant energy

Never did witness such style

Daring and determined,

An imperious persona of such elegance

That brooks no challenge

You are the Monarch

Of all you survey

O! The uncrowned King-Crow!

Why do they call you?

A predator, ruthless, cruel

A bee keepers scourge?

And Yet you are a delight to farmers

And a haven to scores of birds

That nest in your vicinity

Nature chose you

To demonstrate in display

The Majesty of Black

The dignity of agility

The grace and profundity

And above all, an uncommon commonality!


The author, 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.

One comment

  1. There’s something really funny about how this bird sits on trees or electric lines, like it’s a proud father or something with puffed up chest and all. A really informative read.

    Like

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