Growing Amidst Nature

by Adithi Muralidhar

Mumbai is a city I look up to when I think of a forest in a city. I fancy its long but recent natural history, of tigers roaming the islands, sloth bears digging into termite mounds, and leopards that once lived in harmony with humans. Most, if not all, is now lost. As I read Dr Salim Ali’s autobiography The Fall of a Sparrow (ch. Special Providence, pp. 4–5), I came to realise that Mumbai did not lose its charm until recently. What caught my attention was his recount of Chembur, a part of Mumbai Metropolis, and probably one of the busiest corners of the city today. In his own words, “[…] Chembur – now a noisy part of the metropolitan Bombay but in those days a delightfully quiet sylvan haven of secondary moist-deciduous jungle set among outlying hillocks of the Western Ghats [...] It was thickly wooded in parts till uniformly denuded into a veritable Rock of Gibraltar by the relentless fuel-hunters.” My association with Mumbai is mostly intact because of its green pockets, but how I wish to experience what Dr Ali felt over hundred years ago: “The spirited song of the Magpie-Robin which regaled us at daybreak as we lay half awake, reluctant to leave our cosy beds, is one of the earliest and most cherished of my ornithological memories. They bring back those matchless, carefree school vacations in Chembur every time I listen to a Magpie-Robin’s song, no matter where.” Adithi recounts her childhood in the exact location Dr Ali reminisces, and he would have been pleased to know that the Magpie Robin still sings in this part of the city, although the hyena is long vanished. In Adithi’s words…

The relationship I share with Nature goes back for as long as I remember. I was born in a small green pocket within Mumbai city and for a long time I thought Mumbai was that green.  It was fifteen years later that I realised that the green place I called home was one of a kind, one of the last remaining wild lands in Mumbai where one could live with nature in its true essence.

My childhood days involved countless occasions of interactions with nature. While walking to school or on the way back, my mom would point at the different birds that we would see. “That’s a Magpie Robin”, she would tell me and my friends pointing to the black and white bird that chirped away for everyone to hear. I would notice the trees and their flowering season, the birds that we saw only during winters, the occasional snake that would slither away without anyone noticing. I was so enamoured with the way nature worked, everything used to amaze me as a kid. It was for this reason I joined a local nature club, an association run by an enthusiastic and nature loving couple with their daughter. With them, I travelled to nearby forests, mudflats and villages, and learned about birds and animals and their habitat. We learned to notice and observe birds more intently. As part of the club, we also planted two saplings in the garden complex of my former residence.
A Magpie Robin bathes in a water pot kept in the backyard
During my childhood, picnics did not mean going to amusement parks or theme parks. It meant finding the most shade-giving tree near to our apartment building and pitching up a small tent-like structure.

I remember this one time when me and my friends (we all were 10 or 12 years old) planned a picnic which basically involved us carrying a couple of bed-sheets and home cooked food to the nearby housing society about 200 meters away. The adjoining building had a huge playground. At the fringes of the playground, there were several Plumeria trees. Their short height and sturdy branches were good enough to carry our weight. We climbed them and tied our bed-sheets on to two trees which served as our roof”. We placed another set of bed-sheets on the ground and lo! Our campsite was ready! We spread out our food…those from south went for puri-bhaji while those from north lunged for the idli and dosa! Such simple and joyful times contributed to our happy childhood. The gentle breeze was enough for the pale yellow Plumeria flowers to fall from the branches… I remember lying on the sheets for an afternoon siesta, watching each flower gliding gently on the tender breeze…
Childhood picnics to natural spaces often form the basis of inculcating interest in nature amongst children
We also once had a kitchen garden in our building. Our mothers guided us and gave us tips on tending the garden. We planted tomatoes, brinjal and some herbs. We also emptied our kitchen waste as compost into the garden pit. After school, I would rush down to the garden to water the plants. And soon enough, the tomato plant bore several fruits. I remember waiting patiently for a week till the fruit grew bigger and riper for us to pluck it. A tomato from our very own garden! The wait, which seemed like forever, finally came to an end and four tomatoes were distributed amongst the four of us kids who tended the garden. My sister and I joyfully brought home the one tomato to show off to our parents the fruit of our hard labour. My mother of course beamed with pride seeing her two kids taking keen interest in such an activity. The plan was to cut the tomato (like a cake-cutting ceremony) during dinner and relish the tasty fruit with our family. I also remember me and my sister being extremely upset when that very same day my dad eventually came back from the office and made rassam unknowingly using our tomato!

I remember the time when I was really upset about leaving my apartment and shifting to another one just a few hundred feet away. But one of the things that made me accept the new apartment was the path that led to it (from my old building) through a forest; barely a hundred meter winding kuchha path through the forest. I remember walking with my grandmother through that forest when a snake crossed our path. I was scared, but my grandmother didn’t lose her calm; she held on to me and said wait, don’t run, stay here. Let it pass. And we watched the exceptionally long yellowish brown snake cross our path for a good 5 seconds! There were many such small green forest patches in the colony and I occasionally would traverse through them to reach shops, buildings or school. The “short-cuts” through these patches soon became my favourite pass-time.

My school was located in a fairly open space, but the location where I completed by grade 11 and 12, was nothing short of a picturesque painting. Just behind the college was a lake with green waters. There was a small rock island in the lake where many birds would come and rest, particularly during winters. I remember having spotted a couple of Garganey (Anas querquedula) there once!
Garganey, a winter visitor to the Indian subcontinent.
During monsoons, this place would turn greener with kingfishers zooming past and catching fish. Freshwater Turtles (or terrapins) could be seen swimming just under the surface of the water as they came up for an occasional breather. Unfortunately the lake was fenced on all sides and we could never venture too close to it. Thanks to some meddling residents who did manage to break the fence, the lake ended up being a “visarjan point” during Ganesh Festival. Since then, the broken fence area which is also the only access to the lake is trashed with plastic, boxes, and flowers. It has also become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Never the less, it is still up to this day one of my most favourite places.

Monsoons meant it was time for some small hikes in the vicinity. I had a great time sighting fresh water mollusks, scintillating insects, bird songs, and other forms of nature that gave me company during these hikes.

I no longer stay in such a green pocket (and much to my sadness, the greenery I speak of does not exist the way as it used to now). But the good thing is that thanks to this connection, I have now learnt to pay attention to the minutest of details when it comes to nature, on how to appreciate nature even when I am sitting duck in the middle of peak hour traffic in Andheri.
A froglet of the Burrowing Frog in the green pocket of Mumbai
Today I find pleasure even when I travel through Mumbai local trains and I see open drains and sewers enroute; for I am able to observe and appreciate the opportunistic Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) who has found a way to live in such environments. When I pass Kurla station, I peek into the gutters that are found between two tracks and observe frogs that are able to live in that polluted water! Nature has only continued to amaze me day after day and I am thankful to my childhood experiences because I have learnt how to truly value all the facets of nature and be grateful to her.
A Brahminy Kite flies over Vajara Falls in Karnataka
Since I love rambling about nature to anyone who is willing to listen, I used to not miss opportunities where I could interact with youngsters particularly school students and college-goers. I tell them about my experiences in nature. Their ideas and comments used to help me understand what kind of views they have about the world around them, what animals in particular catch their attention, which issues do they consider to be as "environmental problems". When asked which is their most favourite, or rather most memorable experience in nature, they would all talk about a famous tourist stop or a hill station.

I have noticed that all they need sometimes is a little nudge to get their minds thinking and imagining. Show them a picture of Coppersmith Barbet. They are mesmerized by her colours. Then ask them if they can hear that repetitious kuk-kuk-kuk sound. They appear much surprised when you inform them that the source of that ‘call’ is the Coppersmith Barbet! Rest assured you will have them looking for the source of sounds in nature the next time they hear this much commonly heard bird in the city.
A Coppersmith Barbet - one of the common resident birds of Mumbai's green pockets
Unfortunately, our green pockets are shrinking. Not all of us may have the privilege of growing in some green pocket within a city anymore, but the greenery isn’t ever too far.

There is more than one reason to be in the midst of nature, and there is a growing body of science that indicates that exposure to nature at a young age leads to positive environmental ethics (for more, see this). Given that we are living in a world where environment takes a back seat, there is a need for the younger generation to be more environmentally conscious and sensitive. And all you need to do is be in nature with all your senses open, and reach out to the plants and animals with an open heart and mind.

About the Author: Adithi Muralidhar
Adithi is an ardent nature enthusiast based in Mumbai and has a keen interest in science and environment education, sustainability and socio-cultural issues.
She "occasionally" tweets at @Adithi_M
You can contact her here.

This work is © Adithi Muralidhar and has been published with her permission. All the views expressed in this article are that of the author. Feel free to use the content and photographs of this article for non-commercial work with an attribute to the author/photographer along with a link back to this page, and would appreciate if you can drop an email to Adithi to let her know that you have used her work.

Barefoot Notes: Under a Palash Tree

A Stink Bug landed on my head and got entangled in my hair. Thinking that it was just a wayward fly, I brushed it off instantly – and out spurted a spray of the stingiest chemical that became stuck to my head and the hand I used to brush it off! Just above me, a murmuration of Chestnut-tailed Starlings fed merrily on the brilliant blossoms of a Palash (Butea monosperma) tree, now in its full splendor. I had been sitting here for the past hour observing birds that came to feed on it. It was my alternative to a nice afternoon siesta on the quietest time of the week – Sunday – when all the human voices retract to the recesses of civilization. To call it quiet in the real sense would be unfair – only someone oblivious to the sounds of the birds will interpret it so. It was my sixth day of sitting under this tree. I had decided to spend an hour every day, divided into morning and late afternoon hours, sitting under this tree and pretending to be a part of it.

Initially, although the merry riot of birds kept me occupied, I started feeling a sense of solitude settle upon me – mostly because it was hard for them to adjust to an intruder. As time progressed, I started to observe some peculiar behaviour amongst birds – behaviour largely influenced by my presence, but also oblivious to it. The impact my presence had – or did not have – largely depends upon how you, a human observer, perceive me: as a part of the landscape or removed from it. Being a part of this natural world, albeit being a human, I found the disturbance of the birds in my presence justified when I observed the disturbance caused when other birds like starlings and the treepies arrived. Although I could not fly, I started to feel that I was a part of the landscape. And under the shade of this Palash tree, I found solace.
The Palash tree I sat under; on a cloudy day
It stands just beyond a small perennial pond, near the bank of a dried-up stream that arises from this pond and joins Jamunia several hundred yards further. The tree stands about four meters from ground, is a little bent at the base, and branches into two before it rises straight up. It bears scars of hacking near its base which appear to have healed, and up high on its crown rests a magnificent coronation of flowers like little oil lamps setting the forest ablaze.

The tree is probably a decade or two old. I noticed it first last summer, when it scarcely blossomed and soon shed leaves. It now stands magnificent amongst trees that are either shedding leaves or sprouting new ones. It is the only tree that would catch your attention if you stood by the pond. Three other Palash stand close by, one to the left and two behind the tree, all in their early stage of flowering.
A Purple Sunbird (male) exploring the chandeliers of Palash
Birds of an array of colours visit this one – from the tiny warblers and sunbirds, to treepies and woodpeckers – to relish its vast reserves of nectar. At any point of the day, between sunrise and sundown, at least a few birds would be occupying the tree. Most lively of the lot are the Purple Sunbirds. Their chatter is a constant company, and you will see them chase one another with fervor between their feeding breaks. Oriental White-eyes are rather noisy ones, chasing each without any particular reason, chuckling to themselves in what sounds like clicks. Both these species are content with chasing their own counterparts, and the interspecific competition seems to be absent – probably because there are just so many flowers to drink from.
A murmuration of Chestnut-tailed Starlings
It is only when a band of Chestnut-tailed Starlings appeared that they disappeared to find shelter on nearby trees with thick foliage, or visited the newly flowering Palash trees. Although I did not see starlings intentionally bothering the little birds, their presence in large numbers seemed to deter them. A little flock of starlings, about three or four in numbers, is tolerated by most birds. I once saw them feeding peacefully in the company of Common Myna, Golden-fronted Leafbird (Chloropsis), Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, and Black Drongo. But I’ve also seen them in tens, reigning over the tree in absence of others.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (female) looks on from a bed of Palash's inflorescence
The Leafbirds were rather random in how they approach this tree, perhaps because they know several others in the vicinity, or it could be because of the fact that they are shy. But I saw them feeding contently – both males and females – while I was calmly sitting under the tree.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (male) feeding on Palash's nectar
When I approached the tree, careful though I was, I sometimes flushed the birds out. But as I settled, I noticed a trend. The earliest birds to return were the sunbirds, closely followed by white-eyes, warblers and tailorbirds, and later large birds like leafbirds, starlings, and mynas also appeared.
A Black-rumped Flameback wodpecker takes a break from feeding
The vagrant visitors, and most shy of the lot, are the larger birds like Black-rumped Flameback, Rufus-bellied Treepie, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, and Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets – all extremely wary of my presence. Only on a few occasions, when I hid under the lush canopy of an adjoining Jamun (Syzygium cumini) tree, could I observe them contently from the crack in the canopy.
Rufus-bellied Treepie (one of the courting pair) looks on through the foliage. Treepies also feed on nectar,
but they were also seen intently plucking flowers and dropping them to the ground.
What’s curious is that all these birds vary in their habits, and their beaks are of a variety of shapes, adapted to what they feed on. On Palash, they all converge; broad-billed, short-billed, and needle-billed alike; feeding on the nectar with sheer delight. The Palash tree has evolved itself to make the best out of this: to get itself pollinated.
Oriental White-eye, seen with a bindi on its forehead - probably a mark left behind by Palash's pollen.
The exposed filament and stigma can be seen just below the beak of the bird.
Most birds that have been feeding on Palash’s nectar carry a bindi on their foreheads – a saffron mark left there by the anthers of Palash’s strategically designed flowers.
The curious shape of Palash's flower probably evolved with the birds
that learnt to feed on its nectar. The basal petal is flat, in which the bird can insert
its beak, and the upper petal encloses the plant's stigma and anthers,
which protrude out when pressure is applied to the inner base of the flower.
Appearing like a set of jaws, the flowers of Palash open outward from the branches, and their inflorescence creates a bed on which birds can land and feed. The birds require to reach inside the mouth of the flower for the nectar in a peculiar way, and while doing so, their crown (or throat – whichever way the flower or bird is oriented), rubs against the folded petal that enclose filaments carrying anthers and a style carrying stigma. As the birds try to reach further in for nectar, the filaments get exposed, and rub against the bird, transporting pollen with a hope that they will be cross-fertilized when the bird visits another tree to feed upon.
A Black-rumped Flameback feeding on nectar using its long tongue; in such instances pollination fails
Some birds, though, also feed from the side, or the flower grows in an awkward shape to reach in properly, completely skipping the intricate mechanism set in place by the tree. Most birds would try to reach in for nectar in any way possible. I saw a Black-rumped Flameback woodpecker feed on the nectar using its long tongue from far.
A Golden-fronted Leafbird (female) feeds in the typical manner which helps the tree
transplant its pollen onto the bird's crown
Almost all the birds like the Tailorbird, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Black Drongo, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Chestnut-tailed Starling, and Common Myna, feed as per the mechanism set in place by the tree (if the flower is properly placed) owing to their small sizes or shorter beaks.
A pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos masked with pollen
I once saw a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos with a rather exotic colour on their faces – only to realise that it was the pollen they were smeared with (which likely belonged to a neighbouring Semal (Bombax ceiba) tree that is also currently in full bloom).

The reason why so many birds converge on this tree was quite interesting and boldly apparent: its colour. Trees in summer (like Palash, Semal or Red Silk Cotton Tree, and Indian Coral Tree (Erythrina spp.)) often blossom in bright shades of reds to attract birds.

Birds are sensitive to light around 570 nm in wavelength (i.e. light between green and red) thanks to the presence of the cone pigment “iodopsin” (Varela et al., quoted in Wikipedia). And almost all trees relying on birds for pollination are known to have brightly coloured flowers in this same visible wavelength, exploiting a bird’s excellent sense of vision. This colour is what makes Palash’s profusion stand out in the landscape, attracting birds from far, and ensuring the passing of its progeny.

Plants that flower in shades of purple and violet (around 300 nm according to Markha et al, 2004 and Backhaus et al, 1998, quoted in Wikipedia),  do so to attract another efficient pollinator: insects. Although insects visit a variety of flowers irrespective of their shape, colour, and scent, purple and violet colours are much more common in plants during monsoon, probably to attract insects which are higher in diversity and density during this season.

Read more about this hypothesis in On a few Wonders of Sahyadri.
A Lesser Whitethroat - a winter migrant and rather uncommon visitor of Kanha's forests, carrying the bindi near its beak
As I sat under this Palash tree, I began to wonder about these intricate relationships plants have with animals. Both are subconsciously providing crucial services to one another, maintaining the balance in an ecosystem. What if this mechanism was adopted for afforestation and habitat restoration?

Although several scientific methods are being applied for such initiatives, exploiting the visual aspects of trees and pollinators is crucial to invite the diversity of life into a degraded ecosystem. In case of Palash which is found across India, it can be vital in long-term conservation of afforestation projects, because they invite a diversity of other animals to the area. Similarly, trees like Red Silk Cotton Tree and Indian Coral Tree can be used in such programmes as well.
A Chestnut-tailed Starling looks on from its perch amidst flaming flowers
My theory is based on this premise: When I sat under the tree, I represented the disturbance (in the presence or absence of the tree) because of which no birds would arrive. Then, they noticed I had settled down – or probably left – and in my place stood a Palash tree in its full blossom. Soon, the most tolerant of the lot, the sunbirds, white-eyes, tailorbirds and warblers arrived – followed closely by leafbirds, starlings, and mynas – and later by other larger birds like parakeets and mammals like squirrels. This completed the picture – the birds fed, the tree pollinated, and a balance between the two was set in place.
A carpet of Palash flowers under the tree
Unfortunately, most plant nurseries do not breed these species, and therefore obtaining them is difficult. The logic of plantations of Eucalyptus and Acacia, which is still rather prevalent in Central India even today, is not ecological, yet their saplings are still common in nurseries. Adopting a ‘visual invitation approach’ by using indigenous trees which produce flashy flowers will help in the process of attaining a balance in an ecosystem, if used in combination with other species.
An Oriental White-eye takes a break from feeding
It is important to understand relationships between plants and animals, not only for mere research, but because they can help us bring back the forests that we have destroyed, and trees – multitudes of them – to sit under and gaze upon. I still sit under this Palash tree, and will continue to do so whenever I get time, with a hope that by being one with the landscape I’ll find more about this tree’s secret. By doing so, I think that I’m as much as a starling or a treepie, only without wings.

Birds observed feeding on the Palash tree I sat under:

1. Purple Sunbird
2. Oriental White-eye
3. Common Tailorbird
4. Greenish Warbler (?)
5. Lesser Whitethroat
6. Golden-fronted Leafbird
7. Chestnut-shouldered Petronia
8. Red-vented Bulbul
9. Chestnut-tailed Starling
10. Common Myna
11. Black Drongo
12. Rufus-bellied Treepie
13. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
14. Black-rumped Woodpecker
15. Rose-ringed Parakeet
16. Plum-headed Parakeet

Birds that visited but did not seem to feed:

17. Common Rosefinch
18. Spotted Dove

Other birds observed feeding on Palash in the same locality (added on March 13, 2015):

19. Brahminy Starling
20. Alexandrine Parakeet
21. Black-hooded Oriole

All photographs were taken on the single Palash tree I sat under.