Capturing kaleidoscopes: the lilac-breasted roller


Wow! Look at that! Goooorgeous!

If there’s one bird guaranteed to get even the most bird-blind of safari-goers reaching for their binoculars, it’s the lilac-breasted roller (Coracius caudatus). Decked out in vivid blue, purple, rufous, olive, turquoise and – yes – lilac, this ridiculously colourful species is both conveniently common and fond of conspicuous roadside perches. Even beginner birders needn’t work hard to spot one. And once spotted, it’s not easily forgotten.

Easy-to-spot, however, does not necessarily mean easy-to-photograph. Cue puzzled dismay on the faces of would-be bird snappers as they scroll through picture after picture in which this feathered beauty appears only in silhouette, its colours lost against the light.

There’s a reason for this, beyond simply poor camera skills. The lilac-breasted roller feeds by swooping down to snap up insects, small lizards and other unsuspecting creatures. By keeping the sun at its back, it can spot any moving prey from the shadow it casts – and a dusty road makes a perfect buffet table. Thus, when you turn up along said road, the roller is invariably both above your eye-line and against the light.

The roller family, Coraciidae, comprises 12 species in total, of which eight occur in Africa. The name refers to their rolling, tumbling, territorial displays, designed to show off their dazzling colours to maximum effect. The harsh grating calls that they make during these performances bear out the truism that it’s often the birds with the prettiest plumage that have the ugliest voices (which, to be honest, is only fair).

Like all rollers, this species nests in a tree hole – either a natural cleft or one chiselled out by woodpeckers. It lays from two to four eggs and defends its nest aggressively, driving away raptors and other predators with noisy aerial assaults. Once fledged, the youngsters do not acquire their long showy tail streamers until after their first moult. Like all rollers they are born with syndactyl feet – meaning the second and third toes are fused together.

Lilac-breasted rollers are the most widespread of the African rollers, occurring in woodland savanna from the Red Sea coast of Eritrea to north-eastern South Africa. You are most likely to spot them in reserves and other undisturbed areas, where they often perch beside roads or overlooking clearings, and may gather at bush fires to snap up prey fleeing the flames.

Unsurprisingly, the conspicuous colour and behaviour of this bird have captivated people from ancient times. In Zimbabwe, it is sometimes known as Mzilikazi’s roller – its feathers having once been used to adorn the head-gear of the 19th century Matabele king. Today it is the national bird of Kenya.

So, don’t worry if at first you struggle to get a decent pic. Be patient, and your chance will come – as it did for me with the picture above. In the meantime, get this fabulous creature in your binoculars and just roll with it.

To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.

This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit

Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour. 

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