A resounding success: the lilac-breasted roller

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By Jim Knox

Our Land Rover veered left and took the rutted bush track. A quick movement to my right caught my gaze above. The bright South African sun caught the flash of color, reflecting it back to me. The creature sped towards a large horizontal branch forty feet high, where I studied it carefully.

The Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), is an African icon and a bird of the real bush. Also known as the Swallow-tailed Roller, Lilac-throated Roller, and Mosilikatze Roller, this lively bird is unmistakable. Inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa and occasional visitor to the Arabian Peninsula, it is a bird of the savanna dotted with trees and open forests. One of nine species in its genus, these African birds are arguably the best known.

Possessing a modest wingspan of 23 inches, a length of 15 inches, and a mass of 3.5 ounces, these birds don’t grab our attention for their size. It is the other attributes of the scroll that attract our passing human attention. With an olive crown, golden band over the eye, white “chin”, bright lilac chest, bright azure and indigo wings, turquoise underside and black-tipped forked tail, the bird visually proclaims its presence everywhere. where it lands. Earning the name rollerblade for its acrobatic courtship flights in which the birds launch upwards, before diving with closed wings, then rolling rapidly from side to side. If courtship is successful, these aerial breeders will mate in flight! Whether in appearance or movement, the roller’s beauty and grace are unquestioned.

Yet, though the roller is striking, it deserves my respect for more than its eye-catching plumage and agility in flight. Its characteristic robust construction, its large head and its robust beak transmit the power in this small body. Far from another “pretty avian face”, the roll is creature or strategy, strength and execution. Filling the role of its North American cousins, the shrikes, the lilac-breasted roller is pint-sized – a fascinating combination of beauty and beast. Sporting the colors of a songbird and the predatory heart of a raptor, the roller is a creature not to be underestimated. Holding their own against many intruders, including humans, lilac-breasted rollers will aggressively protect their nests, chicks, and even hunting territory, chasing away intruders. As a small creature whose call has been compared to the sound of a steam train, the roller possesses and projects a larger-than-life reputation.

A ferocious hunter to rival its grandparents, the roller only succumbs to the fastest predators such as peregrine falcons and Wahlberg’s eagles. It is this quickness and alertness that serve the roller well when hunting. In addition to grasshoppers and other insect prey, these aerial hunters are fearless, capturing rodents, lizards, birds, and even poisonous prey like centipedes and scorpions! Renowned for their tactics, rollers frequently assume a prominent position from which to search for prey, while remaining motionless. In fact, it’s one of the few African bush creatures known to dive boldly into advancing bushfires, slaying unfortunate prey fleeing the flames. Once targeted, the glowing birds swoop down, grab prey with their oversized beaks, and batter their victims with their wings, as well as against rocks, trees, or hard-packed ground. Once subdued, rollers frequently swallow their prey whole.

Nicknamed the “rainbow roller” for its dazzling plumage, the roller is often called Africa’s most beautiful bird. How can such an amazing creature possess the make-up of a relentless predator? It is this mixture of visual and physical, this mixture of beauty and ferocity, which makes this little bird a creature with unparalleled attributes. I’m not the only one to think so. Long revered by people across the African continent, the Lilac Breasted-Roller is the national bird of Kenya and features prominently in many cultures and traditions. A monogamous bird that mates for life, the roller earns our respect for its loyalty. Standing as a living symbol of love, marriage and devotion, the scrolls share parental duties. The Afrikaans word for scroll is “troupand”, which translates to covenant. The Venda people of South Africa and Zimbabwe make wedding rings from the bird’s multicolored feathers that have also adorned South African wedding dresses for generations. Zulu culture embraces the scroll as a test for a couple’s readiness and compatibility for marriage. A band of feathers is attached to the wrists of the couple. If the couple can keep the feathered band sealed, they are ready to work through life’s trials together and can enter into marriage.

In the Lilac-Breasted Roller we have a creature with enviable features. A living being of small stature but with larger-than-life abilities and presence. A creature of simultaneous beauty and daring, a companion of devotion and teamwork, and an unparalleled set of feathers and courage. In short, a creature worthy of emulation. Although few of us can yearn to chew on a scorpion or swoop down on an intrusive lioness, we can all learn a lesson from the lilac-breasted roller. There is beauty in appearance and beauty in the strength of our actions.

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