GROUND-ROLLERS Brachypteraciidae The Ground-Rollers are a unique family of five distinctive species found only in Madagascar. Four of them occur in the rain-forest of the eastern escarpment; the fifth is found only in the spiny deserts of the southwest. This latter bird is the fantastic Long-tailed Ground-Roller (left and below right). It is one of my all-time favorite birds in the world. It has been so ever since Stuart Keith (1974) listed it (with Congo Peafowl and Great Argus) as among the three most "elusive" species of birds. It has always been difficult to find, given its restricted range, small population size, and retiring habits.
   Fittingly, its specific epitaph is "chimaera," an elusive and perhaps-non-existant ghost. Even today, Morris & Hawkins (1998) state that "without the assistance of local guides the species can be very difficult to locate." Bird tours have now learned to hire locals to take them to territorial pairs in the red-earthed spiny desert, and so it was that I was fortunate to observe and photograph this one.

The Long-tailed Ground-Roller is an odd mixture of parts. The big head and bill and colorful pattern might recall the Neotropical puffbirds, the glistening sky-blue wing coverts and terrestrial behavior strongly recalls the pittas, while the long tail and preference for running on the red earth reminds one of American roadrunners. Yet, in the picture to the right, as it sits on a low branch and cocks its tail up slowly, it is nothing so much as a gigantic Australasian fairywren! Its habits are also unique. Its appears essentially restricted to sandy deserts of cactus-like Didierea madagascariensis and the succulent Euphorbia stenoclada (Dee 1986) where it lays its eggs at the end of a three-foot burrow it digs in the sand. Pairs are territorial, feeding amongst the leaf-litter. All in all, what a bird!

  And there are four more ground-rollers to come, each impressive in its own way. I made this pencil sketch of a Pitta-like Ground-Roller (left) shortly after observing it in the field. It responded to a taped call in wet tangled forest, hopped up to an eye-level branch, and began calling. As it gave each deep "whop" note, it dipped its head to its breast and wagged its tail. This sketch is in black-and-white out of my field notebook, but the bird itself was striking. The throat and supercilium were gleaming white, setting off the black mask through the eye & face. The white throat was bordered in deep blue, which itself was crisply demarcated from an orange upper breast and neck. The crown is blackish (dotted white) and the back green. The belly was white and legs bright pink. A VERY colorful but VERY elusive bird, looking like a giant overgrown pitta (from whence the name), but still oddly different.

The other three deep forest ground-rollers are equally striking, and now that tour companies have tapes of all, some participants have returned home with all five ground-rollers after a two-week visit. Quelle incredable! [and oui, this means you, Carol]. These remaining ground-rollers are the Rufous-headed (or Crossley's) Atelornis crossleyi (which I had the good fortune to see at Ranamanfana), the Scaly Bracypteracias  squamigera, and the Short-legged. Each is spectacular, elusive, and prized -- one runs out of superlatives in talking about this family. Yet they generally remain a best-kept secret from most birders who, having never picked up a book about Madagascar, are unaware of their existence. After this page was initially posted, Anke Poggel of Germany sent me this fine shot of Short-legged Ground-Roller (below) from his recent visit to Madagascar. It certainly is a prize species....

Photos: The  Long-tailed Ground-Roller Uratelornis chimaera was photographed near Ishfay, north of Tulear, southwestern Madagascar, in Nov 1992. The Pitta-like Ground-Roller Atelornis pittoides sketch was made on the day of observation in the Ranamanfana Reserve, eastern Madagascar, on 26 Nov 1992. The Short-legged Ground-Roller Bracypteracias leptosomusis © 2000 Anke Poggel (used with permission). Except for Short-legged Ground-Roller, all photos & art © 200 Don Roberson, all rights reserved.

Bibliographic essay

Family Book:  There is no "family book" per se of which I am aware. Spectacular photos of all five ground-rollers are in Morris & Hawkins (1998) and their habitats covered by Dee (1986). The latter, however, is outdated as to their relative status. Much has been learned about these birds within the last decade, and most are less rare than initially thought. I expect that when the Handbook of the Birds of the World reaches this family, the usual combination of great photos and strong text will provide a fine family introduction.

Other literature cited:

Dee, T. J. 1986. The Endemic Birds of Madagascar. Intern. Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), Cambridge, U.K.

Keith, G. S. 1974. Birding planet Earth -- a world overview. Birding 6: 203-216.

Morris, P., and F. Hawkins. 1998. Birds of Madagascar: A Photographic Guide. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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Page created 18 July 1999; updated 5 Nov 2000