When exploring the forests of Asia, you may encounter some peculiar looking birds with forked tails who are singing whacky songs. Although they come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, the culprit of your curiosity could very well be a Drongo.
Drongos are a family of birds that can be found from the Himalayan mountains to the islands of Borneo in Southeast Asia. With such a widespread distribution, these birds have undergone extensive speciation and have many variants throughout their range (Pasquet et al., 2007). Some adorn crests atop their heads, while others have long skinny tail feathers that flow behind them like a biological banner. However, all variants share some major characteristics such as being primarily insectivorous (i.e. eating insects) and exhibiting high levels of imitation of other local bird calls (Flower, Gribble & Ridley, 2014). There is some evidence that the Drongo uses this imitation behavior to live in mixed-species flocks with other insectivores (Goodale & Kotagama, 2006a). It has also been observed that the Drongo can seemingly use these imitation calls to trick other species of birds into abandoning their new-found prey. This behavior is a form of kleptoparasitism—where individuals will steal items from others, deeming the Drongo as one of many known bird bandits (King & Rappole, 2001). Furthermore, Drongos have been observed to adjust their vocal mimicry behavior to appropriately match the current context in order to optimize foraging benefits (Goodale & Kotagama, 2006b).
Among all the species in the wide family of Drongos one in particular is quite an extraordinary sight to see amongst a leafy backdrop‑ the greater racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus). This species is found exclusively in Asian rainforests, where they often place themselves conspicuously out in the open making a “racket” through imitation calls of other local birds. With a nondescript sleek black body, the main distinguishing characteristic they possess are their unique tail feathers. Although all the Drongo species have tail feathers that end in a fork shape, this species has additional extended appendages beyond the fork that end in a ribbed tuft. When in flight, these elongated feathers flow behind them elegantly. When you see them fly by at a glance, it almost seems like some giant black beetles are following the birds tail feathers at close range. In addition to these fantastic tail feathers, the greater racket-tailed drongo possesses a crest of curled feathers above the beak that helps to distinguish it from its doppelganger, the lesser racket-tailed drongo.
Now, if I have effectively piqued your interest in seeking out this phenomenal creature there are two ways in which you may find this bird. Depending on the season when you visit the habitat of the greater racket-tailed drongo, they may either be traveling in small groups of mixed-flocks or in pairs. They travel in pairs during the breeding season since these birds have a monogamous mating system where two individuals are pair-bonded and equally share the burden of parental responsibilities. Although the breeding season spans only a few months out of the year, the timing of the season can vary considerably throughout the species’ range (Ali, 1941; Roberts, 1992). If you are keen on spotting one of these guys in the wild, be sure to check when the breeding season occurs at your particular location, so you will have some indication of the context in which to look for the greater racket-tailed drongo.
So, whether you’re traipsing around the rainforests of Southeast Asia or the highlands of India, keep your eyes open for any and all Drongo species you may encounter. The greater racket-tailed drongo in particular is both a beautiful bird to check off your birding bucket-list, as well as a charismatic species to watch as they trick other species into giving up their most recent meal!
[By: Josie Hubbard]
[Cover Photo Source]
Ali, S. 1941. The Book of Indian Birds. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Flower, T. P., Gribble, M., & Ridley, A. R. (2014). Deception by flexible alarm mimicry in an African bird. Science, 344(6183), 513-516.
Goodale, E., & Kotagama, S. W. (2006a). Vocal mimicry by a passerine bird attracts other species involved in mixed-species flocks. Animal behaviour, 72(2), 471-477.
Goodale, E., & Kotagama, S. W. (2006b). Context-dependent vocal mimicry in a passerine bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 273(1588), 875-880.
King, D. I., & Rappole, J. H. (2001). Kleptoparasitism of laughingthrushes Garrulax by greater racket-tailed drongos Dicrurus paradiseus in Myanmar. Forktail, 121-122.
Pasquet, E., Pons, J. M., Fuchs, J., Cruaud, C., & Bretagnolle, V. (2007). Evolutionary history and biogeography of the drongos (Dicruridae), a tropical Old World clade of corvoid passerines. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 45(1), 158-167.
Roberts, T. 1992. The Birds of Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press.