The (dead) tree of life
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!