The Fight To Save A Home... On A Tree
An Alexandrine Parakeet eats a semal flower. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

The Fight To Save A Home... On A Tree

BloombergQuintOpinion

This month, the first state-led forest bathing centre opened its doors – and its leafy trunks in Uttarakhand. ‘Forest bathing’ is a modern term that is catching on, but for those who can’t access forests, immersion is equivalent to short weekends away, walking barefoot on park grass, or de-stressing under local trees.

Our first introduction to nature is usually through plants. Plants live around us in their quiet, unobtrusive way, and their flowers follow us through our lives – births, weddings, and funerals. We are now in the spring after the lockdown. For a while, as restrictions lifted and with access to Covid-19 vaccines, people have been rushing outdoors towards trees and open spaces. In Bengaluru, people ventured towards flowering jacarandas in Cubbon and other parks. In Delhi, citizens are photographing flowering semal trees. In Goa, many are continuing a movement to protect the trees of Mollem from a road, railway, and transmission line project.

Unknown to us, other little dramas are also playing out. Let me take you directly to the theatre of trees. The main actors in this little soap opera are birds (and some mammals).

Cooped up in small houses in cities, it may be hard for us to imagine that we aren’t the only ones often facing a housing crisis. Yet, birds face it all the time.
A Rose-Ringed Parakeet feeds on a Semal in the iconic Humayun’s Tomb Complex in Delhi. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A Rose-Ringed Parakeet feeds on a Semal in the iconic Humayun’s Tomb Complex in Delhi. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Spring is the flowering season for many Indian trees, and it is also the nesting season for several avians. At this time, they court, frolic, and look for nesting sites.

On a recent visit to a semal grove in Delhi’s Deer Park, I watched a Rose-Ringed Parakeet – mithu in Hindi- squawk indignantly at Common Mynas. The parakeet was inside a hole in the semal tree, fixing its eye on the mynas with the somewhat familiar aspect of a landlord keeping an eye on his favourite parking spot.

A female Rose-Ringed Parakeet defends her nest-hole from Common Mynas. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A female Rose-Ringed Parakeet defends her nest-hole from Common Mynas. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

The parakeet couple would keep warding off the myna couple; the latter would fly around the tree and then return, burning with indignation and the hope that the parakeets had vacated the hole.

Then came a pair of Grey Hornbills. Hornbills are named after their characteristic large beaks, that look like ‘horns’. They too nest in holes in large trees. When the time to breed comes, the male seals the female in the hole, bringing her food for the period that she needs to raise chicks. In preparation for this period, he usually feeds her at other times too – making her comfortable with the idea of being fed. That day, the hornbills came to claim the hole the parakeet was in. But despite being bigger, hornbills don’t have the aggression to match a parakeet. The prehistoric-looking couple instead sat on a neighbouring branch, watching the parakeets dolefully.

A pair of Grey Hornbills look on as a nesting hole they favoured is occupied by parakeets. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A pair of Grey Hornbills look on as a nesting hole they favoured is occupied by parakeets. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

The competition shouldn’t be so stiff. But suitable trees are like the ongoing public school crisis in cities like Delhi: though there are many contenders, there are only a few that actually can be considered. Authorities often count the numbers of trees in swathes – these counts may include coconut tree plantations, coffee and tea estates, and newer saplings. This leads to dubious figures of a rise in forest numbers (even as the older forest is simultaneously lost). But not all trees—a lot like all schools—are good ones. Hornbills and parakeets tend to nest in trees of a certain size and age. A tall tree can protect them from predators, and an old tree would have a girth that can hold a family. Old trees are suitable, and so are dead trees. In the rage to ‘manicure’ parks though, old trees are often brought down, smashing nests to smithereens.

In that grove though, another bird was busy. This was the Brown-headed barbet, an energetic, fruit-eating bird with a kroo-kroo call that heralds the beginning of summer. The barbet was using its powerful beak to excavate a hole in the trunk of a tree.

A Brown-Headed Barbet excavates a nesting hole in a dead tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A Brown-Headed Barbet excavates a nesting hole in a dead tree. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Head down, eyes forward, the bird would work for days to carve the perfect, round hole. What helped its spirit of industry was the fact that the tree was dead – and so probably easier to drill into. But not possessing life doesn’t mean there isn’t life on the tree. Many birds had carved out holes on the trunk – and what looked ugly to us was a sort of housing complex for the birds.

In planning our cities and parks, it is important that trees shouldn’t be planted just for cosmetic reasons, nor be felled for every new project. Being able to provide nesting sites is important too, by planting large, native trees.

As birds ate semal flowers in Delhi, I watched the spent flowers plop to the ground in a slow drizzle. Simultaneously, beaks and wings were busy on the trunks—carving, defending, and standing firm. In the hill ranges of the Aravallis in Haryana, I watched the Palash—a slow-growing tree with orange flowers that look like licks of flame—burst into blossom. Here too, birds and squirrels dipped their heads into the spring bounty. The Palash needs time to grow—which also explains why faster-growing trees are unfairly preferred by horticulturalists.

A Yellow-throated sparrow sips nectar from Palash flowers. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
A Yellow-throated sparrow sips nectar from Palash flowers. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

We are all able to appreciate the beauty of a fully grown tree with masses of molten-orange or crayon-red flowers. But we must also remember that slow-growing trees need patience and timespans which are longer than five-year terms. And even a dead tree standing in a park is a good tree.

Finally, we should all have access to trees that can grow to their full expanse, unhindered. To see the last flush of semal flowers, I went to the 16th century Humayun’s tomb last week. On the generous tree girths, a similar story of the nest-competition played out: parakeets, mynas, and hornbills vying for space. Seemingly taking a break from the combat, a grey hornbill couple sat on a blossoming branch, the flowers looking like their personal verandah. The male took a semal bud, rolled it in a compact shape, and then leaned forward to feed the female. As I watched, smiling, he did it again.

In that ancient space, new alliances were being forged – and I realised, within the shower of flowers, that the language of companionship was not ours alone. And there was always home around a big tree.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.