Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Lilac-breasted Rollers

Lilac-breasted Roller, Mwiba Ranch, Aug 2011
Lilac-breasted Rollers are one of the few birds that catch the eye of even the most die-hard mammal obsessed tourist and offer an ideal opportunity to open people's eyes to the fantastic world of birds. [BTW I have a theory that everyone is actually a birder, most people just don't know it yet. Though I confess that some are harder nuts to crack than others...] As you can't do a drive in much of the bush without encountering one of these beauties, I'm often asked by guides if I have any stories they can use to talk about the birds and until recently, I had to confess that I didn't. They're ecology is fairly straight-forward, they feed on a variety of invertebrates (which they'll often pick up squashed from game-viewing tracks) though they'll also take the odd vertebrate if something suitable stumbles past – a lizard, perhaps, chicks in a poorly hidden nest. They nest in holes and usually have two or three eggs and they're mostly resident (though there's a race breeding in Somalia that is a migrant into Kenya and – very, very rarely, Tanzania).

But thanks to Marcus from Oliver's Camp I was at last given a story about the birds that could make them just a little bit more interesting (though, given the colour, I'm not sure they need much more...). You might (or might not) know that they're the national bird of Botswana (and according to at least one web site also of Tanzania, but I'm not certain about that!), and it's not so surprising that such a pretty bird would have acquired some cultural value. These values probably reached their peak in the culture of the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe and neighbouring parts of South Africa, who had a complex system of uniforms to denote hierarchy, the peak of which was (obviously) the king, who's crowning glory (literally) was a headdress made of Lilac-breasted Roller feathers. Only the king could wear these feathers, and I suspect he looked rather fancy in it too! (Thanks Marcus for the pointer! Be with you this weekend, btw...)

There's also a story I came across (I've no idea of the original source though, I found it here) that suggests that during the act of creation the lilac-breasted roller was first in line for God's attention. So he took the very best of colours, but was so proud of his new paint-job that he forgot to ask for a voice and by the time he realised and got back to God, all the best voices had been used up leaving him with what can only be described as a rather poor effort, considering... (If you want to hear it, there are several recordings here, which is also a fantastic resource for many African bird noises that I thoroughly recommend.)
Armoured Ground Cricket, in my towel, Mwiba Ranch, Aug 2011

As a final note, I've also recently discovered that they rather like eating these beasties (each ridge in the pic is c. 1cm...), which I think most visitors to Tanzania would agree can only be a good thing! It's some form of Armoured Ground Cricket, probably genus Acanthoplus (family Tettigoniidae - the bush-crickets to English folk, the Katydids if you're American), but I'm not sure which species. If you know, do please leave details!


  1. Love your story about how they got their colors.

  2. Hi Lee, glad you like the blog and thanks for commenting!