The (dead) tree of life

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There’s a big sycamore fig tree in our gar­den, which died re­cently. Where there was once a leafy canopy, skele­tal branches now claw at the sky. Many peo­ple sug­gested I cut it down, but I’ve de­cided to keep the tree. Why? A dead tree plays an im­por­tant role in the ecosys­tem. The high­est dry branches, now de­void of any ob­struct­ing veg­e­ta­tion, have be­come good perches for nu­mer­ous birds. Star­lings, doves and horn­bills can be ob­served al­most on a daily ba­sis. Even the odd raptor has made an ap­pear­ance. The dead branches pro­vide clear views over the nearby val­ley, which rap­tors like African har­rier-hawk and brown snake-ea­gle use to scout for prey. Al­though the tree no longer pro­vides food for birds and other an­i­mals, the dead wood pro­vides shel­ter for nu­mer­ous in­sects, which are fed upon by a host of birds. Green wood-hoopoes and a va­ri­ety of wood­peck­ers for­age for wood-bor­ing grubs and other tasty tit­bits. But the real treat was the on­set of the breed­ing sea­son in the first summer af­ter the tree died. One morn­ing, a grey wood­pecker was for­ag­ing among the dead branches. It was be­ing mobbed by a yel­low-fronted tin­ker­bird, which sug­gested that there was more at stake than just a prime feed­ing spot. Closer in­spec­tion re­vealed a small hole in the soft wood, barely the size of a R2 coin. A nest! Over the next few weeks, it was in­ter­est­ing to watch the com­ings and go­ings of the tin­ker­bird par­ents as they de­liv­ered food to the rapidly grow­ing chick. One day a har­rier-hawk came to in­ves­ti­gate. These hawks are specialist nest raiders, but as far as I could tell, it didn’t man­age to get hold of the tin­ker­bird chick. With ev­ery­thing that hap­pened this year, I think the dead tree will stay in my gar­den for an­other year or three!

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