Some mornings ago, when I stepped out into the balcony, the first thing I spotted were two slim, glossy black birds tossing themselves out of the trees at the far end of the lawns, fluting musically as they did. It was a pleasant surprise because I had never seen black drongoes in the gardens before.
These guys are snazzy dressers, all slim, long- (and fork-) tailed, glossy inky black, and possess the alert sparkle of a street trickster. They’re also called king crows, though they hate crows with a passion and will chase the big beady-eyed thugs out of their territory, even if it means landing on their backs and banging on their heads to get the message through, while in full flight. In fact, when it comes to defending their turf and babies, drongoes will fearlessly take on implacable and much larger predators like eagles and hawks. For this reason, they have been dubbed kotwal (policeman) in Hindi. They are lithe, acrobatic flyers, somewhat reminiscent of nimble fighter jets when they go into attack mode against a blundering kite or eagle. It’s for this reason that more docile and timid birds like doves and orioles often nest in the same tree as drongoes do, benefiting from the protection so provided. But yes, I’ve always wondered if kotwal-sahib also kicks down the doors of his sweet neighbours from time to time demanding hafta (one egg per clutch perhaps!)
Drongoes are excellent mimics — especially of that fierce little hawk, the shikra. They are not averse to giving other birds, mynas for instance, panic attacks by suddenly calling like one from close by and making them drop whatever tidbit they might have in their beaks, so it can be confiscated. Once on the Delhi Ridge, I remember searching for a seemingly very evasive shikra which was calling from plain sight; and, as it turned out, it was a drongo having the time of its life! Drongoes, being very early risers (and late sleepers), are usually the first birds you might hear in the countryside, calling well before dawn. On innumerable early morning trips to the Sultanpur National Park, I remember being welcomed by cheerful flute concertos courtesy these birds, which became a sort of signature tune of the place. Naturally, some time was spent watching them do their early-morning acrobatics out of the trees, deftly snapping up moths, midges and other insects.
They are birds of the countryside, preferring lightly wooded country, cultivated areas, paddy fields and habitation. It’s easiest to spot them on transmission wires where they perch, jauntily swinging their devil’s tails and keeping a sharp rust-red eye on the ground beneath, for the incautious movement of an insect. They are complete carnivores, and love grasshoppers, locusts and crickets; as well as spiky stuff like dragonflies. On occasion, they can vary this diet with small birds, lizards — and for the comfort of vegans — nectar and pollen. Their appetite for insects have enamoured them to farmers, who will even go to the extent of providing suitable perches in their fields for these avid pest-eaters. In the paddy fields, they will perch perkily on the backs of cattle, snapping up the insects disturbed by the animals’ hooves as they move through the grass, enjoying their ride all the way. And they love fires — in the woods or in the fields — for the same reason. They’ll fly deftly just ahead of the flickering fire line, gobbling up the poor half-roasted fleeing insects, as if partaking of a free-for-all barbeque.
Black drongoes, which are found all over the country, nest in summer, usually between March and August. During courtship they will sit side by side (sometimes with a third interloper — their lawyer?) talking loudly to each other, as if getting all their pre-nuptial agreements sorted out. But they are modern parents. Both partners build their rather flimsy-bottomed, shallow, cup-like nest, and, incubate, feed, rear and educate their babies together.
There are other species of drongoes (eight or nine in total) you may be lucky enough to encounter: a less glamorous one is the grey or ashy drongo, one of which I used to meet every winter in the gardens of Delhi School of Music, many years ago. Another was the devilish looking spangled or hair-crested drongo. This fellow has a squared-off tail, a distinctive metallic call and a few wiry black feathers slicked back along his shoulder from his forehead. He had been spotted in Delhi’s Deer Park and it was after quite a search — just as we were about to give up — that the fellow called and gave his position away. Sadly, I haven’t met one in Delhi since. The most glamorous of the lot has to be the racket-tailed drongo and for this fellow, you’d have to go into more forested areas. He’s bigger, glossier and has a hell of a jelled black ‘tufted’ hairdo, (not unlike some pop stars of yesteryears). Not to mention the two antennae, like long black streamers sticking out of his tail, at the end of which are two ‘paddles’ (which have also been likened to spatulas). Watch him suddenly feint low across a forested road in front of your car and you may well drive straight into a tree in surprise.
Like the shikra they love to imitate, drongoes are a good reminder that you don’t necessarily have to be built like Hulk Hogan to have your way. Watch one — or a pair — take on a hulk-like eagle or hawk, and you’ll know that pocket rockets can pack a pretty solid punch, and leave a big blunderbuss of a predator bewildered in the process.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.