|C. b. indicus from Mangaon, Maharashtra, India|
Corvus benghalensis Linnaeus, 1758
The Indian roller (Coracias benghalensis) is a bird of the family Coraciidae, the rollers. It occurs widely from West Asia to the Indian Subcontinent. It is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List. The Indochinese roller was formerly included as a subspecies.
It is best known for the aerobatic displays of males during the breeding season. It is often seen perched along roadside trees and wires and are commonly seen in open grassland and scrub forest habitats. The largest population occurs on several states in India, and have chosen it as their state bird.
The Indian roller was one of the many bird species originally described by Carl Linnaeus in the 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae, where he coined the binomial name Corvus benghalensis. Linnaeus based his description on the "Jay from Bengal" that had been described and illustrated in 1731 by the English naturalist Eleazar Albin, derived from a drawing by illustrator Joseph Dandridge, who in turn received a drawing from a namesake relative who resided at Fort St. George, India.
In 1766, Linnaeus also described a roller from India under the name Coracias indica, based on a description of George Edwards in his 1764 work Gleanings of Natural History, from a specimen collected in Sri Lanka. The latter name was used for many years; Indian ornithologist Biswamoy Biswas suspected it was because Linnaeus' 12th edition of Systema Naturae had been preferred as the starting point for formal descriptions. German ornithologist Ernst Hartert determined there were distinct northern and southern subspecies and allocated benghalensis to the former and indicus to the latter. However, Biswas noted that the type locality for benghalensis was Madras, which actually lies within the range of the southern subspecies, and proposed a neotype be selected from Benghal (where Linnaeus had assumed the taxon had come from). This was accepted by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 1962.
Two subspecies are recognized today:
- C. b. benghalensis (Linnaeus, 1758) occurs from western Asia to India north of the Vindhya Range.
- C. b. indicus Linnaeus, 1766 occurs in central and southern India and in Sri Lanka.
The Indochinese roller (C. affinis) was often treated as a subspecies due to some hybridization between the two taxa over an area from western Assam to central Nepal, however a 2018 molecular study of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA showed that the latter taxon was actually most closely related to the purple-winged roller (C. temminckii) while the Indian roller was their next closest relative, diverging for a lineage that gave rise to those two species.
The Indian roller is a stocky bird around 26–27 cm (10–11 in) long and can only be confused within its range with the migratory European roller. The breast is brownish and not blue as in the European Roller. The crown and vent are blue. The primaries are deep purplish blue with a band of pale blue. The tail is sky blue with a terminal band of Prussian blue and the central feathers are dull green. The neck and throat are purplish lilac with white shaft streaks. The bare patch around the eye is ochre in colour. The three forward toes are united at the base. Rollers have a long and compressed bill with a curved upper edge and a hooked tip. The nostril is long and exposed and there are long rictal bristles at the base of the bill. Compared to the nominate subspecies, the southern race indicus is smaller in size, slightly darker in colouring and has a more distinct rufous band on the rear of the neck.
Distribution and habitat
The Indian roller is distributed from Iraq and United Arab Emirates through the Indian Subcontinent, including Sri Lanka, Lakshadweep islands and Maldive Islands. Its main habitat includes cultivated areas, thin forest and grassland.
In the early 1970s, it was observed in the marshes and mudflats of Shadegan County in Iran where it was a common winter visitor. In Bahrain, it was sighted in 1996 and in 2008. As of 2015, about 2,500 breeding pairs were estimated to live in Iraq and 15,000 breeding pairs in the Arabian Peninsula; the population was thought to increase in particular in the United Arab Emirates.
Behaviour and ecology
The call of the Indian roller is a harsh crow-like chack sound. It also makes a variety of other sounds, including metallic boink calls. It is especially vociferous during the breeding season.
The Indian roller spends a few minutes preening followed by flying around its roosting site. It favours electric or telegraphic wires as perches. It has also been observed perching in trees and shrubs at a height of 3–9 m (10–30 ft) from where it forages for ground insects. It also uses higher perches in the upper canopy of trees. The display of the Indian roller is aerobatic with twists and turns. Displays when perched include bill-up displays, bowing, allopreening, wing drooping and tail fanning. It is attracted by fires. It has been observed to follow tractors for disturbed invertebrates. In agricultural habitats in southern India, it has been found at densities of about 50 birds per km2.
The breeding season is March to June, slightly earlier in southern India. Holes created by woodpeckers or wood boring insects in palms are favoured for nesting in some areas. It tears open rotten tree trunks or cavities in buildings to build its nest inside. The cavity is usually unlined and is made up mainly of debris from the wood. The clutch consists of 3–5 eggs which are white and broad oval or nearly spherical. The average size is 33 mm × 27 mm (1.3 in × 1.1 in). The eggs are incubated mainly by the female beginning after the first egg is laid. They hatch asynchronously after 17 to 19 days. The young are fed by both parents and fledge after 30 to 35 days.
Food and feeding
The Indian roller descends to the ground to capture insects, spiders, scorpions, small snakes and amphibians. During summer, it also feeds late in the evening and makes use of artificial lights attracting insects. It is attracted to swarms of winged termites, and as many as 40 birds have been seen to perch on a 70 m (230 ft) stretch of electric wire. Beetles make up nearly 50% of its diet, followed by grasshoppers and crickets. In Tamil Nadu, the Indian roller was observed to forage mainly by gleaning, followed by feeding on the ground and in the air.
Its habit of feeding near roadsides sometimes results in collisions with traffic. The numbers of the Indian roller sighted along the highway between Aligarh and New Delhi decreased between the mid 1960s and mid 1980s, while traffic increased during that time.
The Indian roller is very common in the populated plains of India and associated with Hindu legends. It is said to be sacred to Vishnu, and used to be caught and released during festivals such as Dussera or the last day of Durga Puja. A local Hindi name is neelkanth, meaning "blue throat", a name associated with the deity Shiva (who drank poison resulting in the blue throat). Adding its chopped feathers to grass and feeding them to cows was believed to increase their milk yield. The Indian roller has been chosen as the state bird by the Indian states of Odisha, Karnataka and Telangana.
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