a web page by Don Roberson
DRONGOS Dicruridae
  • 26 species in the Old World
  • DR personal total: 15 species (57%), 8 photo'd
The Drongos are a set of mostly blackish, somewhat crow-like but upright sitting passerines in the Old World. All 26 species are within the same genus (Dicrurus) and all are easily recognized as drongos. [A species traditionally considered to be in a different genus — Papuan Pygmy-drongo Chaetorrhynchus papuensis — is not a drongo at all, but an ancient member of the Fantail family Rhipiduridae; Barker et al. (2004).] Drongos often sit quietly and then sally out after insects, as do flycatchers, and many have tails that are forked, or curled up at the tips, or even have racquets. It was once thought that drongos could be divided into the "primitive" drongos and the "advanced" or "specialized" drongos (Mayr & Vaurie 1948), with the latter having a glossy plumage, like Hair-crested Drongo (left — note the purple or blue gloss on the shoulders and wing), but this has not proven to be entirely correct evolutionarily. Rather, some glossy drongos evolved first, but it is true that those with extensive glossy spangles, complex tail shapes, and most complicated vocalizations, did typically evolve later as more specialized taxa (Pasquet et al. 2007). Such birds are often forest species. Hair-crested Drongo is a lowland jungle bird from eastern India to the Philippines, Borneo, and Sulawesi.

Fork-tailed Drongo (right), a widespread species in subSaharan Africa, is less complex. It is not a deep-forest birds but is well adapted to a variety of open woodland habitats, including riparian woodlands and lightly wooded savannas. It has a gloss to some of its upperparts but is mostly just an all-black drongo with a red eye and prominently forked tail. It does have a surprising ability to mimic other birds or sounds in its landscape, and can perfectly imitate the calls of certain raptors, bush-shrikes, and owlets.

Drongos — at least the open country species like Fork-tailed Drongo or like Crested Drongo (below) — make rather shaggy open-cup nests in the fork of limbs. Crested Drongo is the common open-country drongo of Madagascar.

Drongos are also very aggressive when defending nesting territories, and will vigorously attack much larger birds. A Crested Drongo is seen attacking and chasing a Madagascar Cuckoo-Hawk Avicedo madagascariensis (second photo below).

Almost all the drongos, glossy or not, are black in plumage, making the name of the common open-country drongo in India and south Asia — Black Drongo D. macrocercus — rather like overkill. But there are three exceptions in Asia. White-bellied Drongo is a bird of deciduous and bamboo forests in India and Sri Lanka, and the Indian population is decidedly white-bellied in plumage (left). [The Sri Lanka subspecies are white-vented, rather than white-bellied].

The other white-bellied, but otherwise black drongo, is a subspecies of the Balicassio D. balicassius of the Philippines. Two races in the north Philippines are black, but subspecies mirabilis of the central Philippines (Negros, Panay, Guimaras, Cebu and related islands) has a well-defined silky-white belly. It has suffered severe declines with the deforestation of most of Cebu and Negros; it is possible that it may be a separate species.

The other non-black drongo is Ashy Drongo (right), with a wide range in Asia. However, based on genetic evidence, it is believed to have colonized Asia from Africa long ago (Pasquet et al. 2007). Ashy Drongo has wide variation in both ecology and plumage, and was once split into two species. The nominate race and relatives are all ashy-gray in color, but some Chinese and Greater Sunda subspecies are white-faced or at least white-lored. This bird (right), from Mt. Kinabalu in north Borneo, is of race stigmatops, having white on the lores and around the eye. Populations from the Himalayas through China are migratory, moving south to India and southeast Asia in winter, while breeding bird of southeast Asia and the Sundas are primarily resident.

Drongo taxonomy remains unresolved, especially within the Hair-crested / Spangled complex. Currently, Hair-crested is credited with a wide range in Asia, western Indonesia, and the Philippines, with Spangled Drongo (below) occurring from Halmahera east through New Guinea to Australia and Melanesia. There are probably cryptic species within this complex that have not yet been recognized.

Photos: The Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus crepitans was at Dumoga-Bone NP, Sulawesi, Indonesia, in Oct 2011. The Fork-tailed Drongo D. adsimilis was at Kalahari NP, South Africa, on 11 July 2005. The nesting Crested Drongo D. forficatus was at Tulear, Madagascar, in Nov 1992, and the hawk-diving one was at Perinet, Madagascar, that same month. The White-bellied Drongo D. caerulescens was at Tiger Moon Resort, near Ranthambhore, India, in March 2001. The stigmatops Ashy Drongo D. leucophaeus was on Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia, in Aug 1988. The Spangled Drongo D. bracteatus was at Foli, Halmahera, Indonesia, on 7 Oct 2011. Photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to this family, with some excellent photos, is in Rocamora & Yeatman-Berthelot (2009).

Literature cited:

Barker, F.K., A. Cibois, P. Schikler, J. Feinstein, and J. Cracraft. 2004. Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 101: 11040-11045.

Pasquet, E., J-M Pons, J. Fuchs, C. Cruaud, and V. Bretagnolle. 2007. Evolutionary history and biogeography of the drongos (Dicruridae), a tropical Old World clade of Old World passerines. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 45: 158–167.

Rocamora, G.J., and D. Yeatman-Berthelot. 2009. Family Dicruridae (Drongos), pp. 172–227 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




  page created 11-23 Mar 2012  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved