Habitual Pirate

Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) with Rufous Woodpeckers (Celus brachyurus)

The tropical downpour had eased off, as I made my way along a narrow forest trail leading up the hillside. Wet emerald and viridian foliage glistened as though it had just been varnished, while heavy rain drops splashed in slow-motion onto the damp leaf litter at my feet. Once again, I was in pursuit of woodpeckers, following up on the unmistakeable tapping of some elusive, oriental picid.

Suddenly, a glossy-black bird swooped in front of me, to snatch a winged insect of sorts, before wheeling around, then perching about four metres above the trail.  It was a Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo, complete with two elongated, floppy-tipped tail streamers; these extensions of the outer tail feathers consist of a naked shaft with a pendulous ‘racquet’ on the tip. The drongo bashed its victim on the branch before swallowing it, then cocked it’s head to peer intently towards another tree. I followed it’s gaze with my binoculars and met a pair of Rufous Woodpeckers chipping away at a decomposing trunk.

This was by no means the first time that I had seen a drongo or two in the presence of a woodpecker in the rainforests of Borneo. In fact, the association seems habitual, and anyone looking for woodpeckers would be well-advised to keep a sharp eye out for drongos. These opportunistic pirates have clearly cottoned on to the fact that a foraging woodpecker is bound to disturb a steady supply of insects that it cannot catch itself, so what better way for an acrobatic insectivore to find a meal?

Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, October 2011

DRONGO FACTS:  there are 26 species of drongo (most of them in tropical Asia); drongos are highly adept at mimicking the calls of other birds although why they do this is uncertain; drongos are pugnacious in defence of their nests and territory, actively mobbing owls, hawks and even the largest eagles in a bid to drive them away;  the Fork-tailed Drongo of African savannas makes a habit of following elephant, giraffe and other large mammals that attract flies and disturb grasshoppers for it to catch and eat.

Footnote: the other evening I was watching the charming 1961 film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ starring the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn (our 12 year old daughter Julia Lily has become an ardent fan) and couldn’t help noticing that one of Holly Golightly’s hats was adorned with what I am almost certain were drongo tail ‘racquets’. In the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century, ornamental bird feathers were in huge demand by fashion houses, with London being the hub of the import trade, and New York and Paris the hat manufacturing centres. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of birds were slaughtered all around the world at this time, in what has been referred to as the period of ‘murderous millinery’. Back then, over 100 hummingbirds might have been used to make a single hat! Such astronomical numbers of birds were killed (egrets were particularly prized for their plumes), that public concern and sentiment led to the formation of the the Audubon Society in the U.S.A and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the U.K. For more on this topic, visit this extraordinary site: http://fashioningfeathers.com/murderous-millinery/

Are these drongo tail racquets on the hat worn by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s‘? I think so.

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About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships. www.dbnatureworks.com
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5 Responses to Habitual Pirate

  1. Dee says:

    Interesting Duncan; I hadn’t really thought about the ‘hat thing’ much until you highlighted it here. Thanks Dee

  2. Kate Barnett says:

    Utterly Fascinating, thank you.

  3. Sam Parsons says:

    Hmmm… I think you may have just ruined one of my all time favourite films! Oh well, I still have Moon River…!!

  4. Eben Goodale says:

    Love the beautiful picture. Drongos following woodpeckers in Penisular Malaysia has been described by Styring and Ickes, the Wilson Bulletin, 2001. Drongos are also big participants in mixed-species flocks in Asia and Africa. Some of my work (Goodale and Kotagama, animal Behaviour 2006) suggests that their mimicry actually can attract other specie towards them.
    Thanks for your interesting post … – Eben Goodale

    • Duncan Butchart says:

      Thanks for your comments Eben – I am going to track down some of your papers! I find these mixed foraging flocks absolutely fascinating!

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