Tree or no tree, who gives a fig?

A fig tree in fruit is a forest in itself: every creature in the vicinity is attracted to the sprawling canopy to eat the ripe red fruits, or the fruit-eaters. Sadly, these lovely fig trees are disappearing with our appetite for wider roads

Ripening fruit on a fig tree
Fig trees (Ficus sp) are valuable sources of food for many birds and animals. In an age when fruit trees have turned into cash crops restricted to orchards, with guards stationed to keep birds away, these trees, which provide tiny fruits that ripen to a rich red and house thousands of tiny seeds, become life-givers for birds and mammals. When they are not fruiting, the trees' thick canopies provide safe haven for several species. When the fruits ripen you can hear the clamour of a hundred birds feasting from a long way off.

I have seen a number of fig trees in and around Mysore, but the one that most inhabits my memory is the huge tree near my village in Karukutty, Ernakulam district, Kerala. That tree is believed to be 500 years old and hosts a sarppakkavu -- a shrine dedicated to serpent spirits. My grandfather told me that it was an atthi-maram -- Malayalam for fig tree, though I never saw it in fruit in the days I spent with my grandparents. 

It was nevertheless an amazing tree. Its branches and roots were barely distinguishable from each other. Long strands hung down from the boughs, slowly growing towards the ground. On touching the ground they turned into pillar-like struts supporting the superstructure of the tree. And in this way the tree would branch out and occupy a fair acreage of land.

The Ficus tree at Karukutty
Though I have never seen the fruits of the tree at Karukutty, the ones in Mysore have more than compensated for my loss. There is a huge tree near the smoking zone at Infosys and there are other trees I have seen at my regular birding haunts. I have seen them spread new leaves, sprout tiny ripe fruits, and some others meet their ends - either through natural causes, or at the hands of humans.
A Chestnut-tailed Starling eyes its next morsel
The first casualty I can remember is one near Mysore's Outer Ring Road. This tree had a deep hollow that was home to a Spotted Owlet. The canopy played host to Chestnut-tailed Starlings, Common Mynas, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Brahminy Kites and, at times, a pair of Oriental Honey Buzzards

One morning when we arrived, it simply wasn't there -- all that remained was a stump. For no reason that was apparent, the tree had been cut down and the plot where it stood remains empty even today. I have seen shoots emerge from the still-standing trunk but it will take years for it to regain its past glory -- perhaps more than my lifetime, and that is if it is allowed to stand for that long. 

Some trees, like the one on the shore of Lingambudhi Lake, has been spared the axe since it stands in the compound of a temple.

A Coppersmith Barbet attempts the seemingly impossible
Another one that I shall remember was a fig tree that used to stand near Hebbal Lake in Mysore. It was a majestic tree and bore smaller fruits than that of the Banyan (Ficus bengalensis) but, unfortunately, I never got round to identifying it. It was the roost of purple herons and I have even spotted a Booted Eagle hiding in the thick branches. Last June we found the tree fallen, its trunk brutally snapped by heavy winds that mark the advent of the monsoon.

A contented Golden Oriole in a fig tree laden with fruit

With the widening of the Ring Road in Mysore two fig trees beside the road have been felled. As the city grows, many more are likely to fall prey to development. And the birds that depend on these trees for food will be driven further and further away. And then, sadly, we shall refer to them all in past tense.

Text and photos by Sandeep Somasekharan