You will see him often in the Indian countryside, though he frequents city gardens too. He is the glossy, black bird with the forked tail and a white spot in the corner of his beak. We call him the Black Drongo or by one of his evocative native names, depending on which part of this ancient land we dwell in. For the drongo peoples the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent in three races. Hyderabadis know him as Zulfikar because his tail is shaped like the sword of the Prophet and perhaps also in recognition of the protection he provides “weaker” birds when he is nesting!
North Indians call him kotwal, for he is the farmer’s knight in black shining armour. And since the drongo is so much more well mannered than a crow, he has been honoured with the title of King Crow.
To a layperson the drongo seems to be an evolutionary mix of a shrike and a flycatcher to occupy its unique niche. He has all the ruthless power of a carnivorous bird and executes this brawn with the finesse of a pirouetting flycatcher. Observe him chasing an invisible insect. With what delicate fluttering he pursues it, tip-turning as the little one side slips, coming up neatly from below and snapping his beak shut! Sometimes, the morsel is a trifle larger – so we think – but our acrobat has many a trick up his wing. He will bring his catch to a perch and batter it left and right until the thing is quite dead and broken – only then will he gulp it down. He enjoys this game so much, his exuberance is so unflagging, that you will see him at it throughout the day. He is among the earliest risers, astir well before dawn and only going to roost after dusk.
You can see him outlined against the sinking, swollen orb, a black speck on a fiery red canvas, rising occasionally, after a moth or other crepuscular insect and then plummeting back to his perch with closed wings and a whoop of victory. Having made the countryside his parlour, he has become an invaluable asset to farmers. With a palate for grasshoppers, locusts, beetles, bugs, ants, termites, and bees, he faces no complaints from them. When food is aplenty, a congregation of drongos may be seen feeding in conviviality. Sometimes, the drongo relishes a more sumptuous mouthful and preys on lizards, small birds, and bats. Yet, he is not satisfied. When the trees bloom, he visits many a tender flower and partakes of their nectar.
You will often see flocks of drongos on resplendent silk cotton and flame of the forest trees. Undoubtedly, the bird also helps pollinate a number of these plants. You should not be surprised when I tell you that our friend also indulges in unabashed piracy now and then. He chases foraging birds with great determination and forces them to release their prey, whereupon he grabs it in mid-air and carries it off. He uses various animals and birds, like bovines and the Great Indian Bustard, as mobile perches to give him a great view of the surroundings and the opportunity to snap up any insect his “vehicle” frightens into flight!
The usual call of a Black Drongo is a defiant ti-tiu whistle. But beware of his mimicry. He comes very close to the mastery of his flamboyant cousin, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, in this art. The calls of commoner birds are uttered with the ease of an expert, but sometimes he will venture into the cacophonic world of man-made sound. I once heard him imitate a lawnmower as a mali cropped the lawn!
Like so many insectivorous birds, the drongo too nests in the monsoon when insect life peaks. Though the breeding season stretches from April to August, most nesting activity takes place between May and June. During this period, two or three birds will sit close together on a branch and “talk at” each other in loud, harsh notes, bobbing the front parts of their bodies and raising and lowering their beaks emphatically. A bold bird, he builds his nest in a fork of the outer branches, in trees like tamarind, mango, babool, sheesham, etc. Generally, the nest is four to 12 feet above the ground and the nest-tree usually stands alone so that he has a good view of his surroundings.
We Hyderabadis see another cousin of the Black Drongo in the winter, the White-bellied Drongo. He is a seasonal, local migrant, who prefers shady spaces and the edges of clearings, but he’ll come into gardens too. He resembles the King Crow except for his debonair white belly. When next you go into the countryside, or pass a quiet, secluded pond between a grove of trees and paddy fields, pause for a moment. You might see a Black Drongo dive into the water to bathe and rise with a flutter of wings and scatter of diamond water. He will be silhouetted against the light and the drops of water will sparkle in the rising sun, and your day will be made!
Excerpted with permission from The Living Air: The Pleasures of Birds and Birdwatching, Aasheesh Pittie, Juggernaut.