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An urban menagerie

by Geetha Ramaswami

In a city crowded with concrete monsters, an unbuilt patch of land is sometimes the only green in a sea of grey. A little walled plot of land sitting three storeys below my home serves as the backyard to many buildings and as a compost pit to everybody living here. From the mess of discarded biscuit wrappers, thermocol packaging material and broken furniture rises a forest of optimistic castor plants. When it is not overrun with stray dogs, a single prinia lords over the castor patch, and that’s quite amazing given the size of this tiny bird. Sometimes the prinia rents out a portion of this prime realty to nesting bulbuls. Doves, coucals, mynas, pigeons, crows and drongos pass by every now and then, but never stop long enough to say hello.

A single drumstick tree stands tall amidst the confusion of castor. Every year in June, the tree is chopped at the lowest trunk to prevent it from growing into people’s windows. By December, the tree grows right back, struggling to escape the massive shadow cast by a multi-storeyed building and catch a few rays of direct sunlight. This year the drumstick tree managed to reach all the way up to my balcony and promptly put out flowers. Imagine beholding the flowers of a full-grown tree at waist level! Within a day, a number of little furry, feathered and winged creatures arrived in a frenzy of activity and acacophony of calls. First came the common rose butterfly, that wisp of black, white and red, who inspected the flowers and then decided to seek sweet rewards elsewhere. A large carpenter bee arrived next, looking very black. By the time it left after a morning of binging on nectar, it had knitted itself a cheerful yellow sweater of pollen. A pair of sunbirds, the male a glistening blue-black bundle of nervous energy and the female in a nondescript dress of yellow and olive green, cheeped their excitement at the prospect of a fulfilling breakfast. So eager were they to drink nectar through their little needle-like beaks that they did not even notice the giant human spectator three feet away, trying in vain to capture all their flitting and flouncing and acrobatics on camera.

The only four-legged creature that could make it so far up the tree was a palm squirrel. He skittered purposefully towards the sunbird and ousted him from a prime vantage point. He then frantically nibbled at the flowers, spilling them off the tree, bruising the petals, and breaking whole stalks before skittering back down the length of the tree in a huff. He had detected danger. Sure enough, a shikra – a small beige and grey bird of prey- was perched at a window sill, eyeing the castor patch. There, sprawled on a slab of concrete, was a massive lizard, with a gaudy, mottled, bright orange back, and black legs and sides. This cold-blooded rock agama was unsuspectingly going about his daily routine of regulating his body temperature using the heat of the sun. The shikra crouched, eyes fixed on the immobile lizard. The hawk had just taken flight, when my doorbell rang. I came back to a deserted castor-patch, with neither the shikra nor the agama in sight. Perhaps a bird had gone hungry that day. Perhaps not.

 


Many insects, birds and mammals feed on nectar produced by flowers. While doing so, they collect pollen on their hair and feathers, and transfer it to the next flower that they visit. This is called ‘pollination’, a process without which many plant species are unable to make seeds


Many agriculturally important plants, such as the orange tree, depend on pollinators for making seeds and fruits. But altered environmental conditions, loss of forests, pollution and climate change are all affecting the health and abundance of pollinators. Will our beloved fruits be able to survive the loss of these wonderful pollinating species?


 

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 20 January 2016.

Picture: Nibbling away—A palm squirrel is busy eating the flowers of a drumstick tree.  Credit: Anirban Datta Roy

 

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