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A banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), India’s national tree, is a fig plant that begins life as an epiphyte. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant (like orchids), when its seed germinates in the crevice of a host tree. These seeds are typically dispersed by frugivorous, or fruit-eating, birds. Later, they send roots downward, wrapped around the host. These roots make contact with the ground, and grow into an independent tree. The plants are, therefore, called hemiepiphytes—since they spend part of their life on another plant.

Yellow-billed babblers are mostly insectivorous. They frequented the lower tier of the tree and the ground below, feeding on insects on the overripe and rotting fruit
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Yellow-billed babblers are mostly insectivorous. They frequented the lower tier of the tree and the ground below, feeding on insects on the overripe and rotting fruit

Ficus trees—like banyans and peepal—are often regarded as keystone resources in tropical landscapes. For they bear fruit year-round and are one of the few reliable sources available for resident as well as migrant birds and other animal frugivores, like bats and squirrels. Needless to say, this has immense conservation value.

Several scientific studies have concluded that ficus trees, even isolated ones, are critically important microsites for conservation in urban and human-modified landscapes. In India, given the religious and cultural importance of such trees, it may be possible to build a strong case for their conservation.

It was the big noisy flocks of rosy starlings that first attracted my attention to the action in the fig tree.
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It was the big noisy flocks of rosy starlings that first attracted my attention to the action in the fig tree.

Given this phenomenon of being an year- round resource, fig trees may be even more essential in urban landscapes with rapidly diminishing green cover and related reduction of fruiting trees.

A coppersmith barbet which, like its bigger white-cheeked cousin, is possibly a tree resident. The prominent red of the forehead and breast blends superbly with colour of the figs.
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A coppersmith barbet which, like its bigger white-cheeked cousin, is possibly a tree resident. The prominent red of the forehead and breast blends superbly with colour of the figs.

I experienced this first-hand recently. While walking my pet near my house, off Kanakapura Road, Bengaluru, I discovered a neighbouring banyan tree had started fruiting, and, almost overnight, was bustling with action. I had obviously not noticed the green figs turning reddish-orange till I saw the bird activity.

A Blyth’s reed-warbler skulking around in the bottom storey of the ficus and in the shrub below the tree.
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A Blyth’s reed-warbler skulking around in the bottom storey of the ficus and in the shrub below the tree.

Over four consecutive mornings, I spent about an hour between 8-9am sitting and photographing the birds on the tree from my car. Without the camera, I walked past the tree several times and saw far more than I could photograph in the mornings. It attracted hordes of birds that fed on the succulent figs. There was also a lot to be seen (especially mynas) on the ground beneath the tree as the fallen fruit offered easy pickings.

The golden orioles were always in a hurry (like koels). The male and female would feed separately. After a few minutes of feeding nervously, they would fly away one by one, only to return in a few minutes.
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The golden orioles were always in a hurry (like koels). The male and female would feed separately. After a few minutes of feeding nervously, they would fly away one by one, only to return in a few minutes.

In addition to the frugivores, there were insectivorous birds interested in the insects that the ripening figs attracted. Birds like bee-eaters, warblers, coucals, small minivets, tailorbirds, babblers, flowerpeckers, drongos and sunbirds could be spotted on or near the tree.

White-cheeked barbets are probably residents of the ficus tree itself. They called in the mornings and evenings from the canopy, and were silent while feeding. The barbets were wonderfully camouflaged and impossible to spot till they moved and shook the leaves.
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White-cheeked barbets are probably residents of the ficus tree itself. They called in the mornings and evenings from the canopy, and were silent while feeding. The barbets were wonderfully camouflaged and impossible to spot till they moved and shook the leaves.


Ramki Sreenivasan is a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, wildlife photographer and amateur conservationist.

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