Avian party hotspot – Under the Fig tree
A month-long project by the author turned into an amazing opportunity of watching the cross-species interaction of some feathered friends under a single fig tree
Fruiting of a Ficus tree is a time of celebration in the forest. Birds from all directions get attracted to a fruiting Ficus tree, similar to fair-goers thronging the locales of a festival-ground. I, recently had the good fortune to do some bird-watching at one such Ficus tree almost on a daily basis.
An interesting fact about the fruiting of a Ficus tree is that Ficus trees of the same species in one forest, or in close proximity, never fruit together. In other words, they don’t have a particular fruiting season, and some of the other Ficus tree in a forest is generally equipped with fruits at any given time in a year. Also, what we see and call fruits on a Ficus tree, the green-coloured (or sometimes yellow or red) balls, are actually bouquets of flowers. Each ball has thousands of minuscule flowers inside, which are pollinated by tiny fig wasps. The differences in the timing of fruiting (or flowering to be very precise) allow the Ficus species to crossbreed. But this act has also a profound impact on the ecology of a forest, as various animals are able to obtain nourishment from the Ficus tree throughout the year.
The Ficus tree which I observed was F. racemosa (commonly called Indian Fig Tree or Goolar in local languages). The first birds I noticed on the tree were Brown-headed Barbets (Psilopogon zeylanicus). Although the green colour of the barbets provides them with excellent camouflage in tree canopies, I was still able to notice their movements on the tree from far away. It was only when I approached the tree, that I was able to see the fruits and understood the reason behind the gathering of the barbets. On closer observation, I also understood that there were quite a few Coppersmith Barbets (P. haemacephalus) present among the throng. The usually vocal barbets were moving through the branches without any vocalisation, gobbling one fruit after the other.
The news of the fruiting of the Ficus spread quickly through the forest, resulting in, several other birds on the tree, benefitting from the bounty of the Ficus the very next day. Oriental White-eyes (Zosterops palpebrosus) visited the tree in large flocks. Although their quick movements and small size, along with the generous dimensions of the tree, made it difficult for me to keep an exact count, I felt that there would be more than 100 white-eyes on the tree on several occasions. Later in the mornings, when the white-eyes left the tree in small batches, I realised that there were actually many flocks visiting the tree simultaneously. Pale-billed (Dicaeum erythrorhynchos) and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers (D. agile) visited the tree in much smaller numbers. The Ficus fruits were too large for these tiny birds to swallow, and they were mostly seen pecking at the base of the fruits, probably feeding on the insects, which drawn to the fruits as well. After observing the tree for a number of days, I realised that birds of similar sizes preferred to hang out together. So the white-eyes and the flowerpeckers moved through the tree together, while the barbets seemed to stay in the company of each other. It was also interesting to observe that the two groups thus formed, did not mix with each other. So when the barbets were feeding on one side of the tree, the smaller birds would be seen on the opposite side. The Brown-headed Barbets seemed to trigger the movement of birds, forcing the smaller birds to move on the tree when they moved from one side to another.
Some other birds visiting the tree seemed to be completely indifferent to the movements of the barbets or the smaller birds. A flock of Small Minivets (Pericrocotus cinnamomeus) once visited the tree, fed on the insects for a little while, and then took off, without getting bothered by the barbets or the white-eyes. Other visitors caused a stir among the regular birds when they showed up on the tree. A Rufous Treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda), for example, seemed to repel all the birds on the tree as it moved about collecting fruits. But no other bird caused a bigger stir than a Shikra (Accipiter badius), which made all the birds fly away simultaneously as it came and landed on one of the branches.
Some birds had a strict schedule about visiting the tree. I used to mostly visit the tree during the morning hours, as the bird activity on the tree seemed to be mostly non-existent through the rest of the day. While I had seen Indian Grey Hornbills (Ocyceros birostris) flying about in the mornings, they never visited the tree. This perplexed me a lot, as Ficus fruits do form a considerable part of hornbills’ diet. One day I extended my morning visit to the tree beyond my usual time and caught the hornbills pouring in once the sun was high in the sky. Despite being the largest birds visiting the tree, the hornbills were also they shiest. They mostly stayed inside the canopy of the tree, rarely visiting an open branch to pick a fruit. My initial thoughts were that my presence was causing the unrest within the hornbills, but even when I used to observe the tree from far away, the hornbills always used to visit the tree post 10:00 am and fed on the fruits growing inside the canopy of the tree.
Eventually, the fruiting of the tree finished, and slowly the numbers of birds (the number of species as well as the number of individuals) decreased. Some other Ficus tree might have flowered in the vicinity, to make it the most happening place for all these birds to hang out. But my month-long bird-watching under the Ficus tree revealed some fascinating insights into the life of some of the common birds.
Cover photo: Generalist, Rufous Treepies are known to scavenge, feed on insects and eat fruits when they are available.
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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