Call of the Indian roller

Essentially a bird of open cultivated tracts and light deciduous forests, the Indian roller lives and roosts on trees, writes Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

Wings are sky blue and a broad band of rich Mediterranean blue up to the lower fringes; and soft powder blue crown and the sides of neck and breast are streaked with purple over pale yellow
Wings are sky blue and a broad band of rich Mediterranean blue up to the lower fringes; and soft powder blue crown and the sides of neck and breast are streaked with purple over pale yellow

THOUGH a strikingly handsome bird and plumage rich in colours, but you may miss the Indian roller altogether unless he happens to be perched on an exposed transmission cable or on the pinnacle of a tree.

If you chance to catch him off-guard and gather him in your binoculars in a three-quarter frontal profile, it is a vision that will linger in memory always; his crown a soft powder blue, a yellow wash on the chin, the sides of neck and his breast streaked profusely with purple over pale yellow, the wings, belly, tail a mix of sky blue and deep ultramarine blue and the upper body a sober brownish-olive.

If you can zoom the image further in, your heart will rejoice seeing the dazzling ring of 28-carat gold around a glinting black eye. If luck is with you and the bird flies across your line of sight with wing beats in monumental slow motion, you will see his fully fanned out wings neatly divided in two halves, sky blue above and rich Mediterranean blue below. The sun often touches the sky blue into glimmering turquoise, which takes your breath away.

The Indian roller is loosely called the Blue Jay but that is a misnomer. Jays belong to a different family inhabiting the middle Himalayas whereas the roller is essentially a bird of India’s open cultivated tracts and light deciduous forests. The roller lives and roosts on trees and almost always nests and breeds in natural hollows or cavities in trees but paradoxically he is not frugivorous.

For his food, comprising lizards, frogs and larger insects, he must descend to the ground even though he hates to sully his feet in the dust and mud. He is, therefore, a picture of concentration to determine the critical moment to be certain of picking his prey off the ground in his strong beak. He flies back to the same or another perch. He batters the prey to death before swallowing. Sometimes, he also hawks insects in the air.

Both sexes look alike but the male’s identity becomes much too obvious in the months of February and March when he sets out in earnest ardour to woo a mate. He is so consumed by infatuation that this otherwise hyper-shy bird will completely ignore your presence. His monosyllabic call, an abrupt ‘kraaack’ is now modified for the love song with a mellowed, long-drawn uninterrupted krack-kraaack-kraack-Craaack...rising and falling in decibels in the inverse order to the ascending and descending trajectory of his flight.

For most of the mornings and evenings, the roller keeps up an incredible display of aerial acrobatics, undoubtedly the envy of mortal fighter pilots. He executes three to five somersaults in flight in a single effort, smooth like the roll of the Ferris Wheel which is perhaps why he is named the roller. When fancied, he may go into long loops from a level flight and even loop-a-loop as well. At his ecstatic best, with a raucous kraaack, he will lift almost straight up from his perch like the PSLV from its pad and then tipple over into a nose-dive, and ear-splitting kraaacking and streaking like lightening only to decelerate to zero momentum in a split second, to come perch coyly by the side of his hearts fascination.

At last, when love is requited, eggs laid and incubation begun, the roller slips into a total mute phase lest the location of the nest and his mate be given away to predators. What a chivalrous lover and a devoted, caring mate.