Encounter: Asian Paradise Flycatcher

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher can appear quite unbelievable for those laying eyes on it for the first time

A female Asian Paradise Flycatcher

I distinctly remember the first time I saw an Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). It was May or early June and I was in my mango orchard in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. The orchard with its motley grove of mangoes, bamboo clumps, figs, amla and guava trees reeled under the tropical summer afternoon. Sweat ran down my back and the loo — the hot, dry summer wind — blustered through the orchard, its pitch rising and falling as it singed the trees. The ground was littered with leaves so dry that they crumbled to dust at the slightest footfall. Long lines of soldier ants went about their business, a peafowl fluttered occasionally, laboriously cutting through the heat, and a few langur monkeys waited out the afternoon, their natural ruffian instincts curbed by the heat. 

Oblivious to all this, my attention was focused on hurling stones to bring down “amiyas”, as unripe mangoes are called in those parts. Stone in hand I scanned the trees to locate a suitable target, when I saw a small white bird with a black head and extremely long trailing streamers fly in and perch on a horizontal branch about 15 feet from the ground. I froze in mid-throw, staring like never before. There was a sudden break in the loo and the long white streamers of the bird dropped flaccidly below the branch while the bird stared towards the bamboo clump nearby. It was there for about 30 seconds and then it flew.
The spectacular male in white morph, photographed in the Nilgiris at over 2,200 metres

I had never imagined anything like this before and for a moment I hovered between belief and disbelief. The garden had beautiful birds: peafowl, woodpeckers, leafbirds, barbets and orioles were sighted frequently, but the paradise flycatcher (I found out the name from Salim Ali’s handbook many years later) burned into my consciousness, permanently.

My next sighting (and the first after my initiation to birding) came in early May of 2007, almost 25 years later. We were on our way to Loharjung pass from Kathgodam in Uttarakhand and had stopped for a drink of rhododendron juice (Burans is the state flower of Uttarakhand and the juice tastes a bit like cough syrup). 

The bird was a spectacular white morph and we saw it fly into a large tree at the edge of a fruit orchard, the white tail fluting in the wind as the bird descended the natural slope of the hill. It was a short but unforgettable sighting, coming after so many years, and a precursor to many more in the South. Surprisingly, in my half a dozen birding trips to the Western Himalayas (from June through late September) I have never once seen the bird beyond the foothills.

We had the opportunity to observe this bird in BR Hills. We first sighted the white morph and later, close to the one of the gates where the forest turns into dry deciduous we came across a party of these birds with both the morphs and the short-tailed rufous females. There were at least ten individuals spread along a 1-km section of the road and we observed them at length. Like other flycatchers the Paradise flycatcher perches in mid-canopy and prefers to pick its winged quarry in mid-air. Its sorties are short and swift, the long tail making a graceful calligraphic swirl in the air as the bird returns after bagging the insect. In fact, one can’t help wondering that the bird appears entirely oblivious of the fact that this display device may carry a survival cost. It simply goes about its business like any other flycatcher.

Both sexes sport the bulbul-like conical crest 

The male Paradise Flycatcher occurs in two morphs – white and rufous. The head is glossy black with a prominent bulbul-like conical crest (a 1932 postage stamp issued in the bird’s honor mentions the Hindi name as Shah-Bulbul or King Bulbul), large black eyes with a blue eye-ring, and greyish-black bill. In females (which have smaller crests and squarish tails with no tail streamers) and in the rufous morph the back is rufous, the throat is greyish fading to a greyish-white breast and usually a white vent. The white morph is snow-white with black tips to the primaries and secondaries, and black tips to the streamers.

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher is about 20 cm long and the tail feathers add another 35 cms. Unlike the peafowl, another bird with an exaggerated tail, the Paradise Flycatcher’s tail does not seem to add to the bird’s bulk. When it flies the white (or rufous — depending on the morph) tail-coverts trail like white ribbons, endowing the bird with daintiness and grace. All this makes the Paradise flycatcher one the most spectacular birds and one common enough to be seen by nature enthusiasts. A sight of this bird is a great initiation to the joys of birding.

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher is common throughout Southeast Asia (India, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka, the Malayan archipelago, parts of Indonesia and parts of China). About 13 subspecies are recognized and the populations display a varying mix of the two morphs, e.g. the white morph does not occur in Sri Lanka (T. p. ceylonensis) while the rufous adult is absent from Borneo.

The Times of India reported last July that the Paradise Flycatcher was found nesting in the southern part of the Delhi ridge after 35 years. Dr Surya Prakash, an avid birdwatcher, saw a pair and on a hunch followed them and discovered the nest. The bird winters in southern India (which also hosts a permanent population that gets augmented by winter migrants from northern and central India). It is found in the Himalayan foothills (where it breeds) from the Western Himalayas till Arunachal and the Northeast. However, the bird is absent from Western India and the extreme north. My first sighting was probably a summer visitor at the edge of its range.

A study conducted by V Gokula and Lalitha Vijayan in Mudumalai found only the rufous morphs breeding. The same study had the following to say about the nesting of this lovely bird: “(The nests) were cone-shaped, and built with fine roots, fibre and small leaves, compacted with cobwebs. Nests were built in shady undisturbed sites, away from the road…. Three nests each took about seven days to be built. Interestingly, only the male was observed nest-building, although both sexes are known to (Ali and Ripley 1987). Females laid 3–4 pinkish white eggs. The mean incubation period was 15 ± 0.8 days, and the nestling period was 13–14 days, similar to that reported by Ali and Ripley (1987).”


V Gokula and Lalitha Vijayan; Foraging and nesting behaviour of Asian Paradise-flycatcher Terpsiphone paradisi in Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, Tamil Nadu, India

Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp; Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives
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