The black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) is common across the country, often seen perched high on power cables and exposed branches, keeping a keen eye out for passing insects, its chief form of nourishment. It can also be spotted perched on grazing animals and picking grub off their hides. Though often colloquially called ‘king crow’, the bird is not related to the crow family at all.
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To the unobservant, the black drongo could appear rather unremarkable. Apart from the swift, balletic dives that it makes to pursue its prey, nothing about the drongo’s physical appearance — the small squat body, the glossy black feathers or even the distinctive forked tail — is spectacular. But to merely glance and then ignore this bird is to lose sight of a bird truly remarkable, fearless and aggressive.
One of the best descriptions of the drongo’s aggression can be found in colonial era civil servant and naturalist Edward Hamilton Aitken’s book, The Common Birds of Bombay, which was published in 1900.
In his characteristic humourous style, Aitken writes,”(the King Crow) has nothing to do with crows save to vex their lives. The occasion for that is generally its nest, which it builds on some outstanding branch of a conspicuous tree, scorning concealment. Round this it establishes a ‘sphere of influence’, and the Crow, being a notorious poacher and damaged character, is forbidden to enter that.”
“But the Crow is always sounding the depths of our patience with the plummets of insolence, and it will try the experiment of flying lazily past the King Crow’s nest, or even alighting on a neighbouring tree. Then the little bird gives a fierce, shrill scream, and shoots out like an arrow from a bow,” Aitken adds.
The book continues: “Its aim is true and its beak is sharp and its target is the back of the lawbreaker. The Crow is big enough to carry off its puny enemy and pick its bones, if it could catch it, but who can fight against a ‘bolt from the blue’? The first onset may, perhaps, be dodged, but the nimble bird wheels and rises and plunges again with derisive screams, again and again piling pain and humiliation on the abject fugitive till it has gone far beyond the forbidden limits. Then the King sails slowly back to its tree and resumes its undisputed reign.”
It is no wonder then that the black drongo should have the epithet ‘king crow’ bestowed on it, or that it should be called kotwal (cop) in Hindi — given its no-nonsense approach to predators such as crows and kites, many small birds such as babblers, golden orioles and bulbuls nest in the vicinity of a drongo’s nest. With the 24-hour security service that comes with the location, they can hatch their eggs in peace.