Home | Bird Research or Recent News | Field Notes: The Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), a mimic that tailors its calls to the situation

Field Notes: The Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), a mimic that tailors its calls to the situation

The Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo, a conspicuous black bird with a deeply forked tail, often forages in flocks comprised of up to a dozen different species of birds.  The drongo perches above the flock, snatching insects that they disturb, and keeping an eye out for predators that might go unnoticed by its hunting flock-mates.  The associated bird species seek out drongos, apparently relying upon them heavily for protection.  Drongos feed more effectively when in such flocks, so the benefits go both ways.Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo

Recent studies in Sri Lanka have revealed that, upon sighting a predator, a drongo will imitate the alarm calls of at least 4 other bird species (babblers, laughing thrushes, bulbuls and others), as well as the call given by the specific predator, i.e. a giant squirrel or eagle.

When unthreatened but hungry, the drongo will attract other birds to itself by imitating their calls – but this time it utilizes contact calls or mating calls.  It very effectively forms a small foraging group in this manner.  So, the drongo is not only choosing the calls of other species, but it’s using them in the correct context – hawk as opposed to snake, feeding as opposed to mobbing.  In essence, the bird is a true linguist.  When presented with a human intruder, one drongo improvised – after a very short “assessment” it gave forth the call of a Crested Serpent Eagle (perhaps because this is the largest predator it normally encounters?).

Male European Starlings, incidentally, mimic the calls of other birds in order to impress their mates.  An individual I visited often as a child, kept at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, was able to imitate several words as well.

Some parrots seem to exhibit a quite detailed knowledge of what they are saying.

An abstract of an article dealing with research similar to that mentioned above is posted at:

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Kai Hendry at http://flickr.com/photos/16105436@N00/99531708. It was reviewed on 09:53, 17 August 2007 (UTC) by FlickreviewR, and confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.



  1. avatar

    WOW Frank!!!

    This IS interesting! In Namibia we have the Fork tailed Drongo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fork-tailed_Drongo) (long time did not see that bird) but I can recall in its high pitched voice but did not know of its imitating ability! I know our pied-barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas) some times imitates other birds in its vicinity but never thought WHY!
    Now you have lighten up our bird watch interests again….

    Thanxzzz Frank

  2. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Glad you enjoyed, and thanks very much for the info…wonderful to have so many interesting birds close at hand; something nice everywhere, of course, but Namibia’s diversity must be hard to top.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    It truly is a privilege! Though due to our huge open and vast spaces from savanna to dessert, one has to have quite a bit patience as well.
    But this brings me to the next point…birds are always attracted to human vicinities and soon you will find quite a lot different birds flying by to investigate on anything new.
    A view years ago, I recall on a camping site we had, we where suddenly were overwhelmed by a flock of “brown headed” weavers(have to look up the correct name). They started nesting like mad just above our heads! It was an amazing experience hence the birds were not shattered by us, the dogs or even our kids playing wildly (like they usually do). Unfortunately we could not stay until further activities (egg laying etc). But I remember a second time where I have encountered them…on the very busy road from Windhoek to Okahandja. they where nesting in a tree that partially over hanged the road. Obviously there where lot of casualties lying on and next to the road!
    I could report for hours and hours….

    Anyhow, best regards

  4. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for this story…I really do need to get to Namibia and look around, thanks for the prompt! Weavers are favorites of mine, but have only worked with captives.

    Same here regarding some birds…for example, every lg bridge in NYC now has a peregrine falcon nest; several buildings as well and a hospital that I can see from my window! Great horned owls (Eagle Owl relative) within city limits as well, and during migration have logged almost 300 species on grounds of Bronx Zoo…yes, easy to go on, too much to cover!

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks…a real beauty; I’ve not seen that one yet. Zoos don’t pay them much attention here, except for golden weavers, red bishops, it seems.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Hi Frank
    Red bishops and yellow bishops are regular visitors in our garden! They breed in riverbeds that are full of reeds.
    Then we have the masked weavers which are the most hardworking (the males) I have ever encountered in the bird life! they breed in our acacia trees (partially overhanging our pool). the male can strip 1/8 of a tree within one to two days, depending on how many times he has to rebuilt the nest!!! AND HE WILL NEVER GIVE UP!
    This year we had at least 4 nests where the eggs have hatched…pity we do not pay much attention anymore…but that’s the way we humans are…always on the search for something more though we have everything we need!
    Occasionally we also have the barn owl with its spooky whistling cal. Spotted eagle owls are more in the field together with the smallest African owl, the pearl spotted owl!
    Oh, I almost forgot the martial eagle which used the wind-flag pole of the airport for resting in between.

    I relly have to jack up mu bird watching again!
    Thanxzzz Frank

  7. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    I’m jealous! Sounds wonderful; I was also astonished at the volume of work accomplished by male golden weavers. They would only accept live beach grass, and could use it as fast as we could dig it up for them. Martial eagles, and any type of owl, are also “must-sees” for me, Enjoy (I know you do…),

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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