Purple Sunbird and Dhaira Flower. Photo: Ihtisham Kabir
ome weeks ago I was in the Mirpur Botanical Garden. As I walked underneath a tall Asoka tree blooming with its red and yellow flowers, I heard a loud birdcall – chweep-chweep-chweep – that went on incessantly. I immediately looked up searching for the bird in the tree. But instead, high up above, I noticed a second flower mixed in with the familiar Asoka flowers. The flowers covered the top half of the tree. They were reminiscent of Madhurilata, growing in sparse bunches, thin and tubular in shape, with a mostly red stem and tiny orange petals. They had blended in seamlessly with the Asoka.
It took me a while longer to find the bird that was making the noise. It was tiny, perhaps 5 or 6 cm. long, with a distinctive curved bill. I had trouble spotting it because it never stayed still. A pair of them flew around each other playfully while jumping from flower to flower. Landing on a flower, a bird inserted its bill into the tube for a second or two before flying off.
The bird was difficult to photograph. Just when my camera focused on it, it would fly off. And on the rare occasion that it stood still for more than a second, most of its body was occluded by branches and leaves.
The flower, I noticed, grew from a creeper plant that was at the top of the tree. Wandering around the Garden, I noticed these flowers on several other taller trees. It is called Dendrophthoe Falcate, also known as Tropical Mistletoe. Its Bengali name is Banda or Dhaira. It is a native of South and Southeast Asia and Australia. It is parasitical, sending its roots into the trunk of the host tree and extracting water and minerals from it. There is considerable interest in this vine in plant-medicine circles. The bark is known to have several medicinal properties ranging from narcotic to wound-healing to asthma to menstrual troubles.
Eventually I managed to get a photograph of the bird feeding on the flower's nectar. I later identified it as Purple Sunbird, Beguni Moutushi in Bangla and Cinnyris Asiatica in Latin. Sunbirds - along with spider hunters – belong to a family of birds known as Nectariidae. They are the closest we have to the Hummingbirds of the Americas, though they do not quite hover as much as the latter.
As I watched several sunbirds I was puzzled by their colouring. Males and females look quite different, with females being somewhat duller looking, brown over and yellow underneath. The males have a rich bluish colour. Not only that, “eclipse” males – that is, males not in breeding period – wear yet another plumage. Finally at wintertime, some males have a white mottling on their breast.
If the creepers grew from a spot high up in the host tree, how did the seeds get deposited there in the first place? I think we can look to birds for the answer to that question.