Have you seen a conventionally unattractive little black bird, feistily defending its territory, and bravely chasing large eagles many times its own size? You’ve just seen a drongo! I never gave them too much thought or attention till I came across this video from BBC Earth where an African Fork-tailed Drongo is shown tricking Meerkats with mimicry to steal their food. Having realized that there’s so much more to them than what meets the eye, I started reading up about them.
Drongos are instantly identifiable with a black or dark grey body and a forked tail. They are insectivorous and catch their prey on the wing or on the ground. All drongos are placed in a family called Dicruridae, combining the Ancient Greek words dikros ‘forked’ and oura ‘tail’. Some species are accomplished mimics and have a variety of alarm calls, to which other birds and animals often respond. There is evidence that they utter hoax alarm calls that typically scare other animals off food, which the drongos then eat. Well, this is what inspired me to try and understand more about this family of smart birds!
There are around 27 different species of Drongos in the world, out of which nine are found in India. Six species are found in Karnataka.
- Black Drongo
- Ashy Drongo
- White-bellied Drongo
- Bronzed Drongo
- Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
- Hair-crested Drongo
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus)
The Black Drongo is a common resident breeder across the Indian subcontinent, mostly seen in open agricultural areas and light forests. One can often see it perched on power lines and bare branches of trees. It is known to be very aggressive and territorial and will attack a much larger bird if it invades its territory.
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
Ashy Drongo breeds in Himalayas and north east Indian hills, though a breeding population has recently been observed in central India too. It is a winter visitor to Karnataka and can be found in forests and well-wooded areas. The Ashy Drongo looks very similar to a Black Drongo in some angles, but the white rictal spot at the base of the gape easily sets apart an adult Black Drongo. The Ashy Drongo has a bright red iris, and with experience, you can tell that the Ashy looks a little slimmer and longer. The bird can imitate calls of other birds and can sing the whistling notes of a Common Iora.
White-bellied Drongo (Dicrurus caerulescens)
White-bellied Drongo is easier to tell apart from other drongos due to the well-defined white belly. The upper part of the bird looks greyish, just like in the Ashy Drongo. It is a resident breeder in most of India, except in parts of the north east. It is found in open forests and wooded areas, just like the Ashy Drongo.
Bronzed Drongo (Dicrurus aeneus)
The most distinguishing feature of a Bronzed Drongo is the metallic blue-green gloss on the body. It also has a spangled appearance on the head, neck and breast. It is a smaller bird with a less deeply-forked tail, looking almost square. It is found only in the Western Ghats in Karnataka. It is quite often seen in mixed species foraging flocks.
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus)
The bird gets its name from the distinctive elongated outer tail feathers with webbing restricted to the tips, making them look like rackets. The bird is glossy black with a prominent crest. It is found in broad-leaved forests and is largely restricted to the Western Ghats in Karnataka. These birds are diurnal but are active well before dawn or late at dusk. If you are staying in a wooded area in the Western Ghats, you are very likely to be woken up by the metallic calls of this bird (besides, of course, the Malabar Whistling Thrush!).
Earlier, I talked about how the African Fork-tailed Drongo tricks meerkats with a false alarm call. Similarly, other drongos have fascinating abilities to mimic the calls and songs of many species. The reason for mimicry in birds is still a subject under study and not very well understood. It has been hypothesized that they mimic for various reasons including nest protection and impressing a mate among others. The most fascinating aspect of the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is its ability to mimic many different species. A researcher has recorded the bird mimicking 35 species of birds, 3 mammals, at least 2 frogs and even an insect!
For more details, I recommend that you read some research by Samira Agnihotri.
Hair-crested Drongo (Dicrurus hottentottus)
This is the most difficult to spot among the drongos of Karnataka. Its tail is the most distinctive feature – very broad with an upward twist at the corners. It has a long downward curved bill. The adult has extensive spangling and a hair-like crest (which gives it the name). It is found in moist broad-leaved forests and can be seen in Western Ghats.
Interestingly, the Hair-crested Drongo seems to dismantle its nest after fledging! As per the research by Jianqiang Li, Songtao Lin, Yong Wang, Zhengwang Zhang in China, some individuals initiated dismantling behaviour on the same day that the young birds left the nest and completed dismantling within a few days while others waited for a few days and took longer to finish. Birds seem to be doing this for intraspecific or interspecific competition, or to use the material for new nests, etc.
The world of birds is a fascinatingly complex one. The next time you are out in the field, don’t just photograph them. Observe their behaviour. You will learn something new in every trip!
2. Nest-Dismantling Behavior of the Hair-Crested Drongo in Central China: An Adaptive Behavior for Increasing Fitness? By Jianqiang Li, Songtao Lin, Yong Wang, Zhengwang Zhang