New Delhi: It was early morning in Tal Chapar blackbuck sanctuary in Rajasthan. "Pull over" I shouted in excitement and my friend, veteran wildlife photographer Kamal Sahansi, braked hard on the jeep.
"Neelkanth, wow! Beautiful" don't make any sound. Just click," said Sahansi, sharing expert advice.
There it was, my favourite bird-the Indian roller on a perch, looking up at the skies as if communicating with the almighty. Called the neelkanth in India, it is considered auspicious. People say if you get 'darshan' of neelkanth during the Navratra festival, your wish comes true.
According to popular belief, Lord Rama is said to have seen the neelkanth before setting on his journey to fight Ravana. Folklore says that sighting a neelkanth on Dussehra helps absolve people of their sins. To exploit this sentiment, poachers hunt the India roller and 'exploit" the faithful by organising 'darshans' in lieu of money -- which is illegal.
This was my first 'encounter' with the Indian roller and he sat quietly. It wasn't interested in giving us a demonstration of his wonderful acrobatics from where it gets its name from.
A flash of blue, a splash of orange around the eyes, and a beautiful roll in the air describe this exquisite bird. The roller rolls in the air in a flash of blue and ochre. It could be catching insects, giving them a flash of its beauty before they disappear down its throat. One wonders whether this bird was given a chance to be considered our national bird, a title that the peacock has won. While the species is found from Southeast Asia to the Arabian Peninsula, Indian rollers are commonly found in the heavily populated plains of India, therefore figuring prominently in local lore.
The name Neelkanth, means "blue throat," a name associated with Indian deity Shiva, whose blue throat resulted from drinking poison. Other common names are "blue crow" or "blue jay," perhaps because rollers display crow-like attributes - being noisy, comfortable around humans, and omnivorous.
One can identify the Indian roller as a stocky, medium-sized bird with an overall drab brown appearance whilst perched. The bird is approximately 26-27 cm long and both male and female Indian rollers look alike. Male rollers perform acrobatic aerial rolls during their courtship displays, and sometimes as a defensive tactic around their nests.
There are 12 species in this family. Rollers are crow-sized birds found in the warm areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the islands of the South Pacific and they have small bills and medium to long tail feathers. Most rollers are a combination of blue and brown in colour.
They fly straight up into the air, fold their wings and fall freely towards the ground; they then roll over and fly up again! They eat insects while they are in flight and often perch on a branch waiting for prey to go by. Indian roller is one of the most colourful birds of India whose colours are visible during flight. Found across the plains in India, it is the state bird of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Odisha. Their calls, 'chack-chack' are crow-like and the frenzied flapping of their wings shows off their vivid colours.
Their cousin, the European roller (Coracias garrulus) migrates to India during winter. Predominantly blue, the European roller is a passage migrant and visits India briefly in the winter. The dominance of the brown colour is what helps to differentiate the Indian roller from the European roller. "The European roller looks the same as our neelkanth", that was my first reaction when I saw this species closely in Sultanpur, near Gurugram.
"See this in a flight and it looks beautiful", says my photographer friend Vishal Chowdhary, who managed to get the flying shot. "The Indian roller has lilac colour marking on its face, while the European roller has a blue head. It has no marking on the head and possesses chestnut colouration on wing and back. In addition to this, the Indian roller has bluish, lighter and darker blue wing colour combination."
A threatened migratory bird, the European roller is the only member of the roller family to breed in Europe. Its blue and brown-coloured plumage is its most distinctive feature. Until 2010, little was known about this bird's migration patterns and wintering.
For the first time, scientists from nine countries discovered the routes taken by this species which is currently in a fragile state of conservation. Researchers have been able to uncover this information with the help of geolocators and satellite transmissions. Each year, the European roller covers close to ten thousand kilometres all the way from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa via India and repeats such a long journey again in spring.
While European rollers are in the list of the endangered species, the Indian rollers are described as least concerned by the IUCN. However, experts feel that Indian rollers are not so common these days. In fact, they are facing a crisis due to indiscriminate hunting by poachers and use of pesticides.
The government has launched a 10-year plan to help in the conservation of birds and their habitat. Capturing and displaying Indian rollers is illegal. They are protected under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 which carries a penalty of Rs 25,000 and imprisonment. India is also the president of the Bonn Convention (Conservation of Migratory Species of Wildlife, CMS) under the UN. Nearly 370 species of migratory birds visit India through three flyways - Central Asian Flyway (CAF), East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) and the Asian-East African Flyway (AEAF). India has been working through many programmes for the protection of these species.
Next time you see these beautiful birds, remember they are a boon for farmers as they eat insects and worms from farmlands. These birds are natural pest controllers.