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Vol. XXIX No. 9, August 16-31, 2019

The Coppersmith and the Tulip Tree

Page 5_1Page 5_2Above: The Coppersmith barbet. Left: The flower of the Tulip tree – a richsource of nectar.

This is not a fable about a smithy and a tree, but about a most colourful bird we have in Chennai and its relation to a fast-growing tree. In the course of this article, we will get to know about both and discover where the twain meet.

The most flamboyant bird in our city is undoubtedly the crimson-breasted barbet or the Coppersmith, though it is less common than another colourful bird, the rose-ringed parakeet (Pachaikkili). The Coppersmith barbet is small and rather unobtrusive among the green leaves it frequents but many would have heard its call ‘thuk….thuk….thuk…’, like the sound made by coppersmiths of yesteryear beating copper into shape. The Coppersmiths’ only vocalisation, this sound can be heard regularly in the mornings, evenings and sometimes even throughout the hottest hours of the day, especially if the bird is looking for a mate. The volume and tempo of the calls may vary but the sound is such a unique characteristic that it is easily attributed to the bird. It bursts forth from within the leafy branches of trees or at times from an exposed tip, but it is often difficult to spot the caller – the bird is a natural ventriloquist. If you manage to see the calling bird through a pair of binoculars, the throat can be seen to expand and contract while the bird turns its head in different directions, though the beak may or may not be open. This could be the reason why we find it difficult to place its call.

This barbet seems to have adapted well to our city. In my part of Chennai, they were absent when we came more than twenty-five years ago but at present, they are quite common. Once I saw as many as eight sitting on the top branches of the Tulip tree as if they were at an official meeting. It seems to prefer the Tuilp tree (Spathodea campanulata) for nesting as I have spotted them mostly on this tree – we have about twenty Tulip trees in our complex. The wood is soft even when green, and it has many branches of the correct size and length for the bird to carve out its nest. Sometimes the branches die as a result of previous nest building activity and that makes it more attractive for making new nests if the tree limb is long enough. The entrance is 3 to 3.5cm in diameter and it enlarges to a width of 6-7cm and reaches a depth of 18-20cm.The barbet carves out a fresh nest for each breeding season. On searching the internet, I found that barbets the world over find the trees of the Spathodea family very suitable to nest in. Earlier, I had reservations about this fast-growing tree planted all over the city as it affords convenient junctions for the crows also to procreate and multiply. But over the years, I have found that the Tulip tree has much to be said in favour of it.

The flowers are very attractive and carry a lot of nectar. It is even called the Squirt tree as squeezing the flower bud at the correct stage gives a shower of nectar. Mynas, bulbuls and parakeets visit it very often during the flowering season. The pollen in the long pistils get attached to the head and breast of the feeders and gets cross pollinated when the birds go to another flower. The rose-ringed parakeets and palm squirrels break open the seed pods and feed on the packed seeds. I have noticed this behaviour only in the past few years, so it may be a recent adaptation. The Tulip tree has also survived the few cyclones we have had in the past twenty-five years. The leaves of the tree and weaker branches are blown away by the initial winds and when the strong breeze arrives, it doesn’t harm the main trunk. Our trees are not more than a foot thick but stand over three stories high with the leaf canopy above the terrace. Maybe a combination of factors has protected them from succumbing to the cyclones despite the soft wood, such as minimal canopy, proximity of tall buildings, strong roots etc. The only drawback I find is that the trijunctions of branches provide great sites for crow nests as I pointed out earlier. If only we can improve our waste collection practices by implementing segregation, covering trash bins, consciously stop giving handouts to crows etc., we can prevent crows and street dogs from using them as food sources, reducing their nuisance proliferation. Perhaps we can then plant more Tulip trees to enable our colourful Coppersmiths to increase in numbers!

(Spathodea campanulata has also been called African Tulip because of its origins in Africa, but Dr. H. Santapau in his book Common Trees prefers to name it the Tulip tree.)

C2 29, 4th Seaward Road
Valmiki Nagar
Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai 600041

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  1. vijee says:

    Lovely! Thank you… Hope it is the first of many articles about nature in chennai

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