European roller (Coracias garrulus)

French: Rollier d'Europe
GenusCoracias (1)
SizeLength: 31 – 32 cm (2)
Male weight: 127 – 160 g (2)
Female weight: 130 – 154 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) by the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CMS (3).

The European roller resembles a crow in size and build, but has stunningly colourful plumage, very unlike a crow. The head, neck and underparts are light blue, whilst the upperparts are brownish-orange. When the wings are extended the brilliant azure blue leading edge and the contrasting black wing-tips can be seen. A short, thin black stripe runs through the eye and the tail is greenish-blue with a darker base. There are two subspecies of the European roller; Coracias garrulus semenowi differs from Coracias garrulous garrulus by being slightly paler (2).

C. g. garrulous’ breeding range extends from northwest Africa, southwest and south-central Europe, east through Asia Minor to northwest Iran and southwest Siberia. C. g. semenowi breeds in Iraq and Iran, east to Kashmir and north to Turkmenistan, south Kazakhstan and northwest China (2). The European roller overwinters in two distinct regions of Africa, from Senegal east to Cameroon, and from Ethiopia west to Congo and south to South Africa (1) (2).

Within its breeding range the European roller can be found in warm, sunny lowlands. It prefers open countryside with patches of oak forest, mature pine woods with heathery clearings, orchards and mixed farmlands. On its African wintering grounds it primarily inhabits dry, wooded savanna and bushy plains (2).

The heavy-bodied European roller feeds on invertebrates, such as beetles, crickets, locusts, caterpillars, flies and spiders. They are also know to prey on small numbers of larger animals such as frogs, lizards, snakes and weak, small birds (2). It spends long periods sitting on an elevated perch, such as a bare branch or a power line, watching the ground intently for potential prey (5). The European roller will also follow ploughs on farmland, where disturbance of the soil unearths a feast (2).

The European roller migrates vast distances between continents. From the breeding grounds of Europe and Asia, the roller flies over 10,000 kilometres to sub-Saharan Africa, repeating the mammoth journey again in spring. The movement in early April of hundreds of thousands of rollers travelling north in a narrow corridor along the coast, from Tanzania to Somalia, is one of Africa’s most spectacularly visible migrations (2).

Whilst on its breeding ground, the monogamous European roller will defend a territory with its mating partner (2). Within this territory a nest site is situated in a hole in a large tree, building, cliff or riverbank (2). A clutch of one to seven, but most commonly four or five, eggs are laid from May to June (4). The eggs are incubated, primarily by the female, for 17 to 19 days. The chicks hatch naked and blind, but quickly develop, and fledge after 25 to 30 days. The young continue to be fed by adults for a further three weeks or more (2).

The number of European rollers is decreasing across Europe, with populations believed to have declined by up to 25 percent from 1990 to 2000 (1). Populations in northern Europe have undergone severe declines, and it no longer breeds in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, eastern Germany and the northern part of Russia (1) (4). These declines are due to a combination of factors. Many are shot in some Mediterranean countries as they migrate, as unfortunately the roller becomes an easy target as it rests on low trees, weary after their incredible journey (2). Oman alone shoots hundreds, possibly thousands, each spring for food (2). The transformation of habitats due to changing farming and forestry practices is likely to impact on the European roller, and the increased use of pesticides reduces food availability (1). However, the lack of natural nest sites, due to the removal of trees, is believed to be one of the main factors influencing the decline (6). Luckily, there is no evidence of declines in Central Asia, and thus the European roller is not yet considered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to be globally threatened (1).

The European roller is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), which aims to conserve migratory species by encouraging range states to develop global or regional agreements (3). As well as global conservation action, a number of conservation organisations have been working in specific areas, trying to improve the outlook for the European roller. For example, A Rocha France has carried out studies on the European roller at a breeding site in France, and is planning increased collaboration with local farmers to protect and increase the habitat for rollers and their prey (7). Studies on the European roller in south-west Spain have shown that the number of breeding pairs increase in response to the installation of nest-boxes (4) (6), which indicates that further provision of nest boxes in areas where natural nesting sites have been removed may be an important conservation measure.

For further information on the conservation of the European roller see A Rocha France:

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)