Our local thug is not who you would suspect. It is not the large-manned lion, or the temperamental buffalo bull or even the colossal elephant. It is a small, black bird with a conspicuous forked tailed, blood red eyes and a huge attitude. Thief, liar, bully, sentry and protector, it is none other than the fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis). This local resident can be seen moving around on its own, in pairs or sometimes in small groups when there is a good food source available.
Intelligent and cunning, this little passerine stops at nothing to get its claws on a meal. Feeding on a huge variety of food types but predominantly insectivores, they are known for a number of tactical food acquiring techniques. When viewing large mammals such as buffalo, elephant and rhino, it is not unusual to see a little drongo nearby. They slowly trail the feeding herbivores and as grasshoppers and other insects get flushed out of the grass, the opportunistic drongo is there to monopolise on the meal. This technique is known as hawking and with its distinct hooked bill, the drongo often perches close behind the feeding animals, swooping down and then returning to the same perch to enjoy its quarry. So adaptable is the Drongo that I couldn’t help but laugh when I noticed I was being followed while off-roading through a particularly grassy section of bush.
One of the most exceptional skills this little bird has acquired is to mimic not only other bird calls and for the females, the more complicated the song the male has managed to copy, the more impressed she will be. But what is even more fascinating is that they have not only learnt other birdcalls, but other animal calls as well. They are masters of vocal deception and here in the Lowveld, they have managed to mimic the call of the dwarf mongoose. While safely perched on a branch nearby, the drongo will patiently wait until the hardworking mongoose has caught its breakfast and will then let off a series of mimicked dwarf mongoose alarm calls. This sends the entire business of mongooses scurrying back to safety and abandoning their morning meal leaving the drongo to a free buffet. What is even more fascinating is how fork-tailed drongos in different parts of Southern Africa have learned to mimic different species of mammals, depending on what animals live there. In the Kalahari, the drongos mimic the meerkat (whose feeding habits are similar to mongoose species) while here in the Lowveld, it is the dwarf mongoose call that is learned. This form of thievery is known as kleptoparatism as the drongo sneakily steals the food away from the unsuspecting victim. A biologist from the University of Cape Town, Tom Flower, has done extensive research on fork-tailed drongos and believes that 23% of daily food intake is by false alarming!
The reason this technique works so well, is that this clever bird does act as a sentry and if there truly is a threat in the area, the drongo is the first to sound the alarm. This builds the trust of the other animals and does help when a predator looms. Not only does the drongo alert the bushveld to potential dangers, but it is also the first to initiate an attack. By swooping down, calling and dive-bombing at the unsuspecting intruder in a display known as mobbing, the tenacious drongo is able to chase out any threat, maintaining neighbourhood safety and of course its own.
Despite a couple of morally questionable tactics that the Drongo displays; this bird is without doubt an incredibly well adapted and fearless species. What’s more is that it is a fascinating and entertaining animal to watch out in the bush and while many travel to Africa to track down the larger, more impressive animals it is more often than not, the smaller creatures that produce the greatest stories.
Written and photographed by Andrea Campbell