Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rendezvous with nature


Non-venomous snake
Home for a host of unexpected visitors

Ground Orchid Milllipede
In the past three decades we have converted ourselves from an extended family unit to individual family units with the change in life styles. The result, a vast change in the land utilization for housing seen with suburban areas extending in an alarming rate.

An average home plot generally on a 20 Perch (1 p = 25.3 sq mt) area allows a garden space of about 3 Perches to be developed as a green area. And, though being urbanized we still carry with us the instincts of village life.

Thereby we tend to select certain native plant species in these home gardens. A mango tree is generally a must in all home plots. Today, technology has developed mango trees with short stature to suit the small landscapes.

Similarly fruiting plants of Rose Apple (Jumbu) and olive (Veralu) are common selections while Pihimbiya and dwarf-ficus (Batu Na) and some exotic flowering plants are also preferred.

These miniature home plots in an area of over 100 housing units have created a different bio-diversity all together. If one is observant you could see how your home garden is exploited by the plant world making use of your garden uninvited. Many consider these plants to be weeds and try to get rid of them.

No plant could be a weed simply by virtue of its species. It becomes a weed only if you do not want it there; the Oxford Dictionary says, a weed is “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted” Let them grow where they prefer and you will find a host of new wild life now making use of your garden.

The plants in the neighbourhood release spores, and they find the way in to your garden as well. This is quite common with ground orchids. I have had no ground orchids in my garden, but I am now a proud owner of many varieties of ground orchids; recently I have been intruded by a birds-nest fern on my water tank.

If you are interested in wild life gardening, introduce native plants and shrubs in your garden; native plants have evolved for many years and have developed intricate biological webs of dependencies between them and animals.

Plants help and support the life cycles of wild animals, mainly insects and other invertebrates. These plants adapt to changing seasons and these seasons on the other hand support various life stages of many fauna.

Babblers bathing

Butterflies lay their eggs on host plants providing food and support for one of the most intricate life cycles in nature, the egg to caterpillar larvae, pupa and a butterfly. You may have been trying to get that ‘kathuru murunga’ plant with some decent foliage but find that the leaves are all gone by the evening.

The culprit is the butterfly known as the Three Spot Grass Yellow that lays tiny white eggs that hatch out larvae which feeds on the leaves. If you take care to wipe the leaves morning and evening you would get the plant to a decent height which would then survive.

Did you ever think that the butterfly stops laying eggs in adult kathuru murunga trees? No by now there is another turn of events taking place. Birds start visiting the garden to feed on insects, berries and fruits.

The Seven Sisters or the Common Babbler (Demalichcha) is now in a position to perch on the murunga tree and pick those larvae letting you have the leaves as your food.

Have you seen wild almonds (Kottamba) plants growing under your Rose Apple (Jambu) tree or other fruiting trees? It would be strange to a stray mind, but there is nocturnal activity taking place in your garden.

The fruit bat visiting your garden in the night from a wild almond tree carries in its mouth the fruit of the wild almond only to drop it for a Rose Apple fruit.

This is nature’s way of seed dispersion.

Common Jesable

A Calotes lizard
Most of the native plants and animals which occur in gardens are opportunists, exploiting the artificial conditions they find to their immediate advantage. The dense foliage invites many garden lizards, (Katussa) while the cool damp leaf matter in the undergrowth is a heaven for frogs and snails after which many others come looking for.

The Coucal or the Crow Pheasant (Ati kukula) comes for snails while the Shikra (Kurulu Goya) will pick the occasional non venomous snake that would be looking for the frog and the lizard. If you are observant enough and provide them with other resources as a bird bath and a bird feeder with scrap food from the kitchen, you have created all new bio- diversity in which you are also a member.

Did you ever plan bee keeping? Be mindful for I did once; with one colony I developed five colonies and was proud to serve the entire neighbourhood with bee honey.

After two years, three of my colonies vacated leaving me with two but with no harvest. Closer examinations revealed that both remaining colonies were lacking female worker bees but over and above numbers of male bees.

Careful analysis of the crisis showed that the numbers of the breading White- bellied Drongos (Kawuda) multiplied by the day feeding on the freely available insect protein the worker Honey Bee.

When I gave up apiculture the Drongos brought down their numbers as well with the free food gone. They now do the sentry duties for the Common Babbler that turns over the ground leaf matter for grubs, thereby disturbing the insects as food for them.

If you have not looked in your garden this way just step out and look closely and learn to think and question yourself, because the garden is an expression of an individual’s feelings, imagination and fantasies.

Comparison between a wild life garden and a normal garden is somewhat artificial, and that is because the significant difference is not in the gardens themselves but in the outlook of the people that inhabit them.

The writer is a life member of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) of the Zoology Department of the University of Colombo 

Published in the Sunday Observer  Spectrum  2008 - 07 - 06

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