One of the most common birds that you’re guaranteed to spot while driving in the Kruger National Park, is the Fork-tailed Drongo.
This little black bird with its distinct fork-shaped tail, can be seen all over the park, usually sitting on branches next to the road or with other animals. They are like the Jack Russell Terriers of the bush - feisty, fearless and very aggressive for such a small size, and they will not hesitate to take on even the most dangerous animals and birds of prey.
Drongos are amongst the birds that focus on aerial feeding. Their tails are “forked” shaped much like swallows and bee-eaters, and are used to help with quick and agile movements while in flight chasing their prey. The tail can be operated like a handheld fan that opens and closes to either give more or less resistance, to control their flight.
When it comes to drongos, there is a fine line between having a mutualism relationship with other mammals, commensalism and kleptoparasitism.
With mutualistic relationships, both parties involved benefit from a certain situation, for example drongo are commonly encountered with other animals like impala (Aepyceros melampus), giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and elephants (Loxodonta africana) to name a few. While these animals move through the tall grass, insects are disturbed and flushed out and the drongo will sweep in swiftly to capture them. This method has made the drongo (and some other bird species) slightly more lazy when it comes to foraging as they basically get free food instead of hunting themselves. The animals they follow, do not get influenced in a bad way and the drongo would alert them of possible danger.
In some cases, their “dark side” emerges and they turn into kleptoparasitic bullies. It has been recorded on various occasions, that they actually seemed to be a bit impatient waiting for their free meal. Animals like meerkats (Suricata suricatta) and mongoose (Herpestidae family) have a certain way of foraging - they would have a sentry or scout on the lookout, while the rest of the mob dig and search for their meal. They take turns being the sentry in order for the whole group to get a chance to feed.
The drongos would ensure that they are seen as a “sentry” too, looking out for any danger. At the first sign of any predators or birds of prey, they will then make alarm calls which, in turn, would make the meerkats or mongoose run for cover, creating an opportunity for the drongo to sweep in and pick up any pieces of food that might have fallen on the ground, while their “victims” run for cover. It might take a while before the next alarm call is given but, majority of the time, it may most likely be false alarms!
Eventually, the animals will learn of the drongos hidden agenda, and stop adhering to the the alarm calls and focus more on the real sentry alarm. This is where it gets interesting. The drongo have an amazing ability to mimic other birds and animals, and have adapted themselves to be able to mimic alarm calls of certain species! Usually, as a last resort when they’ve gotten impatient, or if the mongoose have caught a big insect, they would make the actual alarm call of the specific species that they are following! This causes havoc and sends those little critters running for cover, which allows the drongos to feast on any leftovers or dropped food.
Unbelievable talents from a little trickster. After this last resort is used, the drongos would then move off to a different spot to start the process over again, if needed.
Here is a clip from BBC about a Forked-tail drongo mimicking the sounds of a meerkat sentry.
It has been recorded that drongos have up to 51 different alarm calls and, due to this unbelievable talent, they estimate that up to a quarter of the daily food intake, would be from stealing it from other species.
As mentioned earlier, they are like little terriers - taking on bigger, more dangerous animals and birds than themselves.
When you’re on a Kruger safari and happen to spot a bird of prey flying overhead, the chances are very good that, at some stage, you’ll see a little black flying object above the raptor that keeps on dive-bombing onto its head and shoulders. Chances are that it would be the drongo.
They are very aggressive and defend their territories with force, and anything (even humans) that irritate them in their territory, can’t escape an attack from above. Drongos will also start an alarm call, alerting other drongos in the area, and any other bird species, to join in on the mobbing of a predator.
In the case where a raptor is perched on a tree, the drongo relies on its agile movements and, knowing that it needs to be quicker than a larger bird, would continue to peck at them, swerving around the raptor while keeping out of reach of it. The pecking itself does not draw blood, but is more to create a very irritated experience for the raptor - think of a pesky fly that keeps on flying around your head, landing on you now and again, with you being too slow to hit it. It gets annoying right? It’s the same with drongo and raptors. And when the raptor finally decides to move off to a more peaceful location, the drongo would usually escort it for a while to make sure the threat has really moved away.
It would be the same in the case of a snake (Serpentes) or even predators like a leopard (Panthera pardus) - as soon as the alarm is made and they get other birds to join them, the mobbing starts until the threat is gone.
With most predators and birds of prey, they rely on camouflage while moving through the bush or while perched on a tree, when scouting the area for potential prey. And as soon as their cover is blown by the drongo, they are forced to move off as any possible prey in the area would be alerted by the alarm calls.
A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. Word was sent to every bird to come to a meeting at a certain place, in order that a leader might be appointed. Messengers went out in all directions, and when Pau, the Ostrich, heard it, he thought it a foregone conclusion that he, being the largest bird, would win and he was very confident of success.
Gama the Eagle, was equally confident, believing that eagles were the most important birds because they could fly the highest. The little birds could not be sure if the choice would be between stamina or intelligence, but they considered that even they had a good chance.
On the appointed day every bird arrived, all shapes and sizes and colours, from tiny Chidichi the Waxbill to Pau the Ostrich. The elders formed a council to decide which talent their leader should possess, and after much argument and discussion, it was decided that the leader would be the bird who could stay in the air the longest.
Pau complained bitterly about this unfair decision, but no one listened to him. Finally he walked off in disgust, muttering crossly that the other birds were all conspiring against him. So, even today you will find Pau living in dry, barren and open areas where there are not many other birds.
The smaller birds, who had thought they might win by intelligence, knew they stood no chance against the more powerful fliers and many dropped out. But little Matengwane, the Fork-tailed drongo, who knew he had no chance at all by relying on his own flying prowess, decided to use his intelligence to win.
When the starting signal was given, the assembly of birds rose into the air amid a thunderous flapping of wings. Matengwane picked out Gama, the largest and strongest eagle, and he gently settled on Gama’s back and crouched down among Gama’s feathers, unseen by anyone.
One by one the smaller and weaker birds dropped out, exhausted, until only a few eagles remained high among the clouds. Finally, the weaker eagles gave in to Gama, who was still unaware that he carried a secret passenger. When Gama saw that he was the only bird left in the sky, he descended. All the waiting birds started to cheer him. Then, just as Gama landed on the ground, someone shouted “Look! There’s one bird still flying!”
Sure enough, Matengwane was still in the sky and, according to the decision of the council, he must be appointed the leader of the birds.
That is why Matengwane, the Fork-tailed drongo, is the first bird to wake in the morning and the last to go to sleep at night.
Fork-tailed Drongos make a hammock-like cup with twigs, bounded together with spider webs, usually between branches of a tree. The female will lay between 2 and 5 eggs and both parents help with the incubation period. The drongo are also hosts to two known brood parasite species - the African cuckoo (Cuculus gularis) and Jacobin cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus). Eggs are hatched between 15 to 18 days.
Should you encounter herds of animals on your Kruger Park safari, be sure to switch off for a moment and see if you can spot the Fork-tailed drongo amongst the animals. You may even be lucky enough to witness some of its tricks!
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