Sometimes guests will tell me: “I’m not really interested in birds.” I applaud the candour shown by the remark and leave it there. Then, when the opportunity arises, usually later that same day, I show them a lilac-breasted roller – who puts a stop to that nonsense at once. Here are birds big as crows and they exist in an explosion of pure colour.
They are iridescent blue and lilac set off with a pistachio crown, great perchers in dead trees, where their extraordinary colours can be seen for miles. They make instant birdwatchers of the most recalcitrant visitors to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. For many they open the door to an unimagined joy.
There were three of them in a dead tree beside the river, and one of them offered a gift to another: it looked like a large insect. This gift-giving is something a male does for a female as matter of courtship and martial routine; pair-bonding, the ethologists call it.
But this wasn’t a token of long-term affection: you could tell that because the third bird had the most strenuous objections. Here was an interloper making a blatant pass at a female paired with a quite different male roller.
Beautiful birds seldom have beautiful voices: and the third roller flew at the interloper with a great sky-ripping shriek followed by a volley of avian swearwords. Faced with this uncompromising response the interloper backed down at once: sorry, sorry, sorry, I won’t do it again… not until next time, anyway.
The victorious male needed to celebrate his triumph, for the sake of the departing interloper, for the sake of the female or partner or spouse, for his own sake. He rose sharply and then dived headfirst, down through a good fifty feet, wings spread wide, the better to show off those impossible colours. The bright blue bars of the wings lit up like fireworks.
- I was co-leading the Ultimate Luangwa safari for wildlifeworldwide.com. Next year I will be co-leading https://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/group-tours/sacred-combe-safari and I will also be participating in https://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/group-tours/festival-of-wildlife-zambia