One of the most delightful avian sights to be seen in the central and northern parts of Southern Africa is that of the male Lilac-breasted roller in his courtship flight. He ascends to up to 50 metres or so, calling a harsh “ghak, ghak, gharrak”, as if advertising his display, then descends in a dive with wings closed, repeating this climb-and-dive a few times, before ending with a high speed dive, rolling from side to side rapidly four or five times, flashing the brilliant blues of his wings in the bright sunlight. He usually lands close to a female, who then joins him in a duet of calling. A wonderful treat to watch.
Common throughout the more northerly parts of Southern Africa, the Lilac-breasted roller is actually quite sedentary and is more likely to be seen perched on a dead tree or telephone wire, surveying the area, searching for prey.
Spotting a likely morsel, it swoops down and will either eat the prey, usually an insect, on the ground, or it will return to its perch and batter the victim on a branch before swallowing it whole. Their diet includes a variety of insects, scorpions, snails, beetles, frogs, small snakes, lizards, and even small birds and rodents.
A fairly large bird, some 36 cm in length, the Lilac-breasted roller is usually solitary or seen in pairs and is easily recognizable. It has a large head with a washed green crown, a short thick neck and a white chin that contrasts with the bright lilac breast and blue underparts, the flight feathers are violet, as is the rump. The tail is narrow and the outer tail feathers are elongated and somewhat darker. The sexes look alike.
They are found in a variety of habitats – savannas, open woodlands, farmlands, and grasslands. Nesting takes place in a hole in a tree, either a natural hole or one conveniently excavated by a woodpecker or barbet. They do not excavate their own nests. The female lays a clutch of 2–4 eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 22 days.
The scientific name for the Lilac-breasted roller is Coracias caudatus; coracias from the Greek “korax” meaning a crow or raven and caudatus from the Latin, “cauda”, a tail. So we get “a crow or raven with a tail”. How helpful is that?