The African Tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) is a native of east, central and parts of west Africa. However, it has been transported to other parts of the tropics and it is now to be found widely – including where it isn’t wanted. Its great virtue – and the reason for its transportation I suppose – is that it blooms magnificently all the year round. While other flowering trees have their season, the tulip tree is covered with orange, upturned flames of cup-like flowers without pause. Its problem is that it also multiplies itself extravagantly, so much so that it is officially considered an invasive species in Queensland, Australia, and also causes significant trouble in Hawaii, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and various parts of Sri Lanka.
Our African tulip tree in India, however, is an oasis.
The tree grows in my wife’s family home, in an urban garden in the centre of the city of Hyderabad, South India – a rapidly expanding city of nearly nine and a half million people, with construction to match. There are other trees nearby of similar height and degree of foliage – in among the blocks of flats – but none that flower like our tulip tree. We visit only once a year or two so we only sample the tree’s inhabitants and visitors occasionally, but we have seen how many creatures make use of it, from sunbirds by day to flying foxes by night.
The garden – or compound – is surrounded by a wall, separating us from the busy, bustling activity of the street beyond – though not from its cacophony of course.
Sunbirds are small, nectar-eating birds with long, down-curved bills. They are often mistaken for hummingbirds. They share the general appearance but they don’t hover (and hummingbirds are only found in the Americas). Sunbirds are similarly busy though, in among the trees and bushes of the garden and poking around in the flowers of the tulip tree. We have two species of sunbirds, the purple (Cinnyris asiaticus) and the purple-rumped (Leptocoma zeylonica). The females – olive-grey above, pale with a yellow tinge below – are hard to tell apart. The males of the purple – in breeding plumage – appear a glossy purple all over while the purple-rumped is purple above and down to its upper breast but otherwise bright yellow beneath. They are one of our most reliable tenants, always around whenever we visit.
Another resident is the Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus). The Koel is a cuckoo, the size of a thin pigeon but with a longer tail, looking much like a hawk. They dash between the trees – always preferring cover. But then they let everyone know they are there, even as they fly, with loud and unignorable alarams. The male calls a quick ko-el, usually raising the pitch as he rapidly repeats himself half a dozen times. His voice is traditionally considered to be romantic and enchanting, but others find it incredibly annoying. The difference, perhaps, is between early morning when the koel seems to call more gently – and at a distance – and the rest of the day when he is in a state of constant agitation and alarm. The male is glossy black. The female is grey with a great deal of barring on its breast and spots everywhere else. Both have heavy bills and startlingly orange-red eyes with which they stare at me down my binoculars.
The Red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) is a jolly and common resident throughout much of India, including in our garden. They have a black, short-crested head, a scaly brown body, a white rump – and a bright red bottom. They measure about eight inches long. They produce various notes and calls, but they can hardly be said to sing.
Our red-vented bulbuls are lucky – outside of India the species is officially listed as one the world’s worst invasive species. It has established itself on a number of Pacific islands, in parts of the Middle East, in the US and in Argentina. They are unwelcome mostly because of their habit of damaging fruit crops. The bird itself cannot be blamed for this of course as it was introduced to all these places by humans – by expatriate Indians presumably, who may have kept them as reminders of home, and then some escaped. They have also reached New Zealand, where they have been exterminated twice and as of 2013 had a $1000 reward on their heads for information leading to their capture.
One of the loudest birds in the garden is also the smallest. The tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) is a thin fellow with a noticeably long bill and a long tail which is generally held upright, much like a wren (which is also small and in possession of a particularly loud voice). Unlike a wren, he also moves his tail from side to side. They are olive green above and not quite white below with a tan cap. A black patch is also noticeable on either side of the neck, but this it seems is not a matter of feathers but of skin colour and gaps in the feathers.
The Latin sutorius means cobbler rather than tailor but in any case refers to the fact that they make a cradle for their nest by stitching a couple of leaves together with spider-silk or suitable bits of vegetation. One year a pair made their nest hardly above head-height and hanging right over the front gate.
Little green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) often squat on the electricity cables which run parallel with one side of the compound wall. Not for long though. They constantly dash out at a passing insect and then return. They are green of course, but with a chestnut cap and blue cheeks. Their central tail feathers stick out behind like a needle.
Another resident is the Indian or three-striped palm squirrel (Funambulus palmarum) which makes its living as much among our ashoka trees as the tulip tree. Think chipmunk. They are brown-backed with cream stripes and grizzled grey-brown elsewhere. They are frequently noisy and like to flick their bushy tails when agitated – which is often. The reason they have the stripes is that their ancestor was touched on the back by Lord Rama, by way of blessing, after it had helped, in its own small way, to build a causeway to Lanka for Rama’s army. Rama was on his way to rescue his kidnapped wife so the squirrel’s contribution was a meritorious act, not an aiding and abetting of unwarranted invasion.
These are the reliable residents, there to entertain us whenever we stay. Other birds are more or less temporary visitors. One year we found a Coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) had taken up residence in the tulip tree. It was particularly difficult to see – green among the green leaves – but its constantly repeated call was hard to ignore – tonk, tonk, tonk, like a hammer on metal. The call has the curious quality of being both monotonous and delightful. It is a short, squat bird about 6 inches long. Its body is green but its head and neck are multi-coloured, crimson and yellow, framed with black, and it wears a crimson dog-collar.
Another year a pair of grey hornbills (Ocyceros birostris) occupied the tulip tree for the duration of our stay. They occasionally visit anyway, but they seemed particularly attached to the tree on this occasion. They loped around heavily from branch to branch causing great disturbance in the outer foliage and flowers. They are slim, grey birds, a couple feet long from tail to tip of their enormous, black, scimitar bills. The top of the bill sports a pointed horn or casque, half as long as the bill itself. When they take to the air, gliding on stiff wings from tree to tree, they look like nothing so much as a pterodactyl.
Occasionally a coucal or crow pheasant (Centropus sinensis) slopes into the garden. He looks like his name implies, a pheasant with the heavy bill of a crow. He is in fact a cuckoo. He is black all over except for his orange-brown wings and his bright red eye. He is a heavy-looking bird and prefers to clamber among the branches or walk on the ground rather than to fly – although he can easily make it over the compound wall. The coucal’s call is unmistakable and often heard at a distance – a low, repeated, reverberant note which is or was customarily thought to convey an omen. 
An hour before dusk house swifts (Apus affinus) appear above the blocks of flats on rapidly beating wings or scything down and round on wings held briefly rigid. White rumps and throats on dark bodies suggest a martin, but the smooth leading-edge curve of their wings says swifts. All the while, the black kites which have been flapping low or wheeling high all day continue to patrol.
Night comes quickly in Hyderabad, summer and winter. On the edge of dusk, fifteen minutes before dark settles, medium-sized, insectivorous bats flitter out across the garden and high around the flats. This is dangerous living. For the next few minutes it is not yet too dark for a hawk to snatch one out of the air. The kites continue to wheel above.
Fifteen minutes later, the last light fades and the sky is filled with first one, then a couple, then successive waves of Giant Indian fruit bats (Pteropus giganteus), the largest of the flying foxes. Theycome from the west where they roost by day and head east, perhaps to the nearby Indira Park and its many mature trees. All you can see against the sky is a silhouette, a small, snouted head, a four foot wingspan and two small feet following behind. They have no tail. The occasional bat, instead of flying over, drops down and circles the tulip tree a couple of times before plunging into the foliage and grabbing hold – upside down – of the twigs and branches. From there they scramble clumsily towards the orange flowers which grow on the outermost tips, on twigs and which are hardly enough to bear their weight. Sometimes they succeed and presumably manage a lick of nectar. Sometimes they give up and launch themselves back in to the air. A few kites were always still in the air despite the near dark – aided perhaps by the brash illumination of domestic and street lights.
On our last visit, a pair of black kites had built a nest in the tulip tree. It was well hidden in the foliage but we could see at least two chicks, grey-downy, which sat up whenever a parent returned to the ramshackle assemblage of sticks which made up the nest. The birds had established the nest at a time when there was no one in residence. Our arrival came as an unwelcome intrusion. My son went up on to the roof – level with the nest – and found himself being seriously swooped upon. They soon got used to us however – on our terrace and on the roof – and we were soon ignored. One of the pair was usually present on the nest. At dusk, one would perch on the tip of a nearby false ashoka tree. After dark, and the arrival of the fruit bats, it would join its mate in the tulip tree. Before doing so it would also sometimes chase off bats attempting to land in the tree. The bats are no threat, but territory is there to be defended.
A while after dark – excepting the street lights – other, smaller fruit bats appear around the tree and drop in to it to sample the flowers. These have wing spans of perhaps one and a half and two feet – probably short-nosed fruit bats, greater or Indian. Or both. Its too dark to tell.
I once had the treat of a Tickell’s blue flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) in the garden – five inches long, metallic blue above and orange breasted. The sides of the face appeared a darker blue, giving the impression of a wide mask. Even in among the shadows of the bushes it’s blue shone.
The bird – and a number of others – is named after Samuel Tickell, born in India in 1811. His great work was a seven volume Illustrations of Indian Ornithology. Tragically, he went blind before finishing it. However, before his death he donated his manuscripts to the Zoological Society of London which then publish what he had completed – which also included volumes on mammals, fishes and another on insects, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids and crustaceans. I wondered if there’s also a Tickells spider or crab ? (Unfortunately not it seems).
- Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical and discursive. Centenary Edition, Rupa and Co, 1986, p. 277. ↑
Thanks to Umesh Mani of Deccan Birders for the bird photos. Please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to use any of these copyright photos. Higher quality versions are available.