The next time you ignore a drongo…

A birding lesson from the field: Don’t pass up a drongo — or any black bird with a forked tail

Towards the end of our Parambikulam tramway trek, as I dragged my weary feet past a tree on which was perched a dark bird with a telltale fork at the end of of its tail, Beej stopped and whispered, “What is it?”

“Drongo,” I muttered dismissively, and walked on.

“Never rule out a bird unless you are sure,” Beej growled and started looking at it through his field glasses. I raised my camera and lens, which weighed a ton in my tired arms, and fired a couple of shots desultorily.
Realization sank in the same moment as Beej exclaimed, “Drongo-cuckoo!”
Nearly six months later in Dandeli, history repeated itself with a different set of characters. Arun walked past a black, fork-tailed bird on an open perch and I was quick to take note of it, thanks to the ticking off from Beej earlier. It turned out, as it were, to be a Drongo-Cuckoo.

And so, in order to ensure that no birder steps past a Drongo-Cuckoo again, here are some notes from the field:

Note that the black bird on the left shares a profile similar to the bird on the extreme right – each has an “unkempt” tuft of hair above its brow. Both are cuckoos. The bird in the centre, also with a forked tail, is a drongo. In this case, it’s a Black Drongo – the white rictal spot is diagnostic.

1) Head: This bird’s head was of an odd shape – with a ruffled, unkempt tuft reminiscent of the Common Hawk Cuckoo or Brainfever Bird, to which it is related.

2) Bill: The beak is small and slender. All drongos have thick, strong bills that end in a slight downward curve. The Drongo-Cuckoo’s bill juts out of its head like a nail out of a pin-cushion, with the sharp side outwards.
3) Tail: The tail, on closer examination, shows barred markings on the outer feathers. This might be harder to spot when you view the bird against the light or in well-lit trees. And, anyway, this is the last thing that you will notice.
Two forked tails, and each tells a different story. The barring on the Drongo-Cuckoo’s tail sets it apart, while the Drongo has an unmarked fork, though the depth and definition of the fork can vary with the species

And once you are identify a Drongo-Cuckoo correctly, you will never mistake it for a drongo again!

So, which one do you think this is?
Maybe a closer look would help?
Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
Also read: Encounter – Asian Drongo-Cuckoo
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