The landscaped parks and woodland of the Clowance Estate, situated between Falmouth and St Ives in Cornwall played host to an unusual visitor yesterday when a European Roller made a fleeting visit.
The European roller is a brightly coloured bird and the only member of the roller family to breed in Europe. It is a stocky, crow-like bird similar in shape to a jackdaw but with a large, broad head, longer bill, thinner tail, and very short legs.
When perched it can look rather drab, but in flight its brilliant colours become obvious. The adult bird has reddish-brown upperparts with purple shoulders and rump, and bright sky-blue wings with purple and black flight feathers. The underparts are sky-blue, and the tail is dark purple with a broad, white tip. On the sky-blue head, there is a white area around the eye with a black stripe that runs through the eye, and buff around the base of the dark grey bill. The eyes are dark brown or black, and the legs and feet are yellow.
Male and female European rollers are similar, while juveniles resemble the adults, but they are paler and have faint streaks on the breast.
European rollers breed in northwest Africa, southwest, central, and eastern Europe, and central Asia. The European range used to be much broader, but there has been a recent decline in the population in the north and west and it has recently become extinct as a breeding bird in Sweden and Germany.
It is found in a variety of habitats in dry, open country, including oak and pine woodlands, lowlands, but also farms, orchards, and other areas with mixed vegetation.
It is a long-distance migrate flying over 10,000 km to spend the winters in sub-Saharan Africa on bushy plains, and dry, wooded savannas. Tracking technology has found that different breeding populations migrate to distinct but overlapping areas in the winter. However, there is a correlation between the longitude of the breeding and non-breeding sites, suggesting that the different populations of birds migrate together.
The family of rollers sits across two genera – Coracias and Eurystomus. There are 9 species in Coracias and 4 species in Eurystomus.
Eurystomus have proportionally larger wings and shorter legs than Coracias which means the two genera forage differently. Eurystomus rollers are faster and more agile and catch prey on the wing whereas Coracias rollers search for prey from a fixed perch and take it by diving down onto it on the ground. And it is only Coracias rollers that perform the “rolling’ acrobatic courtship or territorial display that gives the family its name.
The European roller is a member of the Coracias journey along with the similarly coloured Indian roller, and the racket-tailed roller, found in southern Africa and named for its elongated outer tail feathers with paddle-shaped streamers. The Oriental dollarbird is one example from the Eurystomus genera, named for the pale blue or white coin-shaped spots on its wings.
It breeds on riverbanks, cliffs, and in trees, laying 3-6 white eggs which are incubated by both parents for 17-19 days. Only a single brood is produced per season, but a replacement clutch will be laid if the first is lost.
It has a varied diet, mainly eating insects and invertebrates with hard shells including beetles, crickets, centipedes, and scorpions, but it will also take small rodents, lizards, and amphibians.
European rollers are rare vagrants to the UK from southern Europe. In 2021 one turned up in Lackford, near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, but they usually only visit once every few years and it was last recorded in Cornwall in 1994.
The current sighting at Clowance Estate, a collection of luxury self-catering holiday lodges, situated in the grounds of an 18th century manor house near the village of Praze-an-Beeble, is unusual in that the visitor has stayed longer than a couple of days. So far, it has been for a week attracting flocks of bird watchers, although it has recently moved to an inaccessible location.
Although in 2015 its conservation status was changed from ‘near threatened’ to ‘least concern’ between 1990 and 2000 its population in Europe declined by 25%, and just 30 pairs remain in the Baltic States and Poland where it is on the verge of extinction.
It faces numerous threats including illegal shooting along its migration roots, and capture for pet trafficking.
However, intensive agriculture is the main reason for the decline in its numbers due to the loss of suitable nesting sites, and insecticides which have decimated the insect population on which it relies for food. It shares similar ecological needs to other species such as little owls, hoopoes, and shrikes which are also threatened by current farming practices.
BirdLife Hungary has recently put forward a Species Action Plan which hopes to stop the decline by 2030 by promoting favourable conditions for the European roller. The plan includes banning insecticides and herbicides that negatively impact the European roller, legally protect breeding areas, and prevent old trees from being felled by forestry operations.