The tough temperament of the Lilac-breasted Roller is perfect for Africa’s wooded savannahs. Lions have glamour, but these colorful birds are hard to miss.
By Rex Graham
They’re favorites of birders from the Red Sea on the north to as far south as the Atlantic Coast of South Africa.
“Lilac-breasted Rollers are bold, garrulous birds, and it is virtually impossible to overlook their presence,” said Australian ornithologist Joseph Forshaw in the African Federation of Aviculture’s Watchbird publication.
“The roll” of the Lilac-breasted Roller
Male Rollers have mastered an unusual aerial maneuver called the roll. With their colorful feathers blazing in the sun, males fly upward 10 or more meters and then dive toward the savannah, rolling left on one swoop and right on the next, repeating the roller-coaster loops several times – all while shrieking loudly.
Forshaw, a parrot expert, loved to watch Rollers, especially their fierce territorial defenses.
“With outspread tails uplifted and crests raised intermittently, two birds, presumed to be rival males, were seen calling loudly at each other from perches atop a bush,” he said. “One would thrust forward at the other, and then facing each other they would fly upward with beating wings, one clawing at the other. Should one obtain a hold, both would fall to the ground and struggle for a while before one would break free and fly up some 10 m into the air, rolling over once or twice.”
Acacia hunting perches
Lilac-breasted rollers prefer widely spaced acacia trees like those found on wooded grasslands of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and southwestern Chobe National Park in Botswana. Such sparsely wooded grasslands have the highest species richness of any African grassland habitat.
Other birds in these areas include the Plain-backed Pipit, Secretarybird, Spotted Thick-knee, Ashy Flycatcher and many others. Botswana alone has roughly 600 species of birds, many of which are wooded-grassland species. The Roller is the national bird of Kenya.
Rollers claim Individual acacia trees. They guard them for nesting, and for territorial signaling and hunting perches. The slightly hooked bill and large muscular head and neck of a Roller are the birds’ predator signature. While clutching prey, they batter and shake it to death before swallowing the limp meal. The hooked bill is particularly useful to remove the hind legs of grasshoppers before swallowing them head-first.
Both sexes look alike, perch on high limbs and, like Kestrels, enthusiastically swoop down to attack everything from locusts, beetles, scorpions and centipedes to small rodents and birds. They relish brush fires for the easy picking of fleeing and injured prey.
Reclamation of old mines with acacia trees and dozens of other native plant species has attracted Lilac-breasted Rollers and other bird species. However, the number and diversity of birds on such reclaimed African mines usually remains less than the surrounding area for many years.