nature watch

Why the evolutionary link between flowerpeckers and mistletoes is crucial to the forests

The feisty flowerpecker is small enough to hide behind a leaf or to hold in a closed fist.

The mistletoe is one of those little plants you hardly notice in the rainforest. It perches on branches of trees like a sea fan on a coral boulder, or like the Christmas decoration. At first glance, it seems like another tassel of twigs and leaves. But look closer and you will notice that its leaves are smaller and a paler green, tinged with coppery yellow, unlike the tree’s longer, parrot-green leaves.

On the tree’s brown branch, which is powdered with white lichen, the little plant arises out of a swollen bulb-like base, holding out dark brown twigs dusted with white spots, like chocolate sprinkled with sugar. Clusters of pinkish-red berries and buds line the smaller plant’s twigs, on the tree bereft of fruit or bud. The little plant is an epiphyte: it’s a plant that grows on other plants. It also shares a deep connection with a small bird. Together, they epitomise the irreplaceable vitality of the forest.

Undeserved reputation

Mistletoes are a partial parasite. They synthesise their own food through photosynthesis but their special roots draw water and nutrients from the host tree on which they are perched. Extreme infestation of trees by mistletoes is rare in natural forests, occurring more often in degraded or managed forests and monoculture plantations. Still, foresters and others concerned with production of timber or fruits from trees sometimes call for mistletoes to be removed or eradicated.

Recent research suggests that this may be unwarranted. In forests, falling mistletoe leaves add vital nutrients to soil under the trees where they grow. Experimental removal of mistletoes causes a decline in the soil’s nutrient and affects the population of other species.

Mistletoes sustain a large number of species worldwide – flowerpeckers, the barbet-like tinkerbirds of Africa, the mistletoebird and honeyeaters of Australia, the sunbirds and white-eyes of Asia, mouse lemurs and sifakas of Madagascar, tyrant and silky flycatchers and colocolo opossums of the Americas, the eponymous mistle thrush of Europe, myriad insects and other creatures.

A modest bird

You would hardly notice a flowerpecker in the rainforest – the bird is small enough to hide behind a leaf or to hold in a closed fist, and drab enough to escape the attention of anyone but an ardent birdwatcher. The undistinguished little bird is dull olive brown on top and a rather dingy white below, with a sharp, glinting, dark and attentive eye and a gently curved beak to poke among the flowers. A metallic, fidgety tick-tick-tick call announces her presence as she darts through the boughs. You have to be quick to spot her before she disappears.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed in Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Kalyan Varma
Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed in Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Kalyan Varma

I’ve traveled far from my home in the mountains of the Western Ghats in South India, to see this flowerpecker. And not just any plain flowerpecker, but a particular one: a bird flitting among the mistletoes on the same trees where I had seen the species two decades earlier.

I am seated on the steps of the Dampatlang watchtower in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram. To the south, steep cliffs plunge to Tuichar valley. An evergreen forest with hundreds of trees adorned with mistletoes surround me on three sides. Along the watchtower grow two small orange trees and a straggling Holmskioldia holding bunches of scarlet cup-and-saucer blooms. Against the wild forest backdrop, the planted orange and cup-and-saucers marked what seemed a very human temperament to cultivate and ornament the land we live in.

Bird’s eye view

Seated two stories high on the watchtower, I am almost eye-to-eye with the flowerpecker. The bird flits from branch to branch, dives into each mistletoe cluster, peeking, probing, seeking with eye and beak. Flowerpeckers remain closely tied to the mistletoes that grow on trees. Their territories span a few hectares at most. The birds consume mistletoe flower nectar and fruits, but this is a two-way relationship. The birds pollinate the plant’s flowers and disperse its seeds.

Mistletoes have tube-like flowers. When probed by a flowerpecker’s beak, these flowers part like a curtain or pop open, dusting the bird’s head and face with pollen. After the bird sips the sugary nectar with a special tube-like tongue (who needs a straw when your tongue can roll into one?) she flies to the next flower, rubbing off some of the pollen onto the flower’s receptive female parts, triggering the latter plant’s reproduction.

Despite the flowerpecker’s name, the birds remain fruit-lovers at heart. Mistletoes often have long and overlapping flowering and fruiting seasons so there is always food for a hungry flowerpecker to find. Ripe mistletoe fruit never fails to attract flowerpeckers.

Mistletoes represents a group of over 1,300 plant species worldwide belonging to five families, chiefly the Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. As the second name suggests, its fruit is viscid – a single seed is surrounded by a sticky pulp, often enclosed in a rind-like peel.

The plain flowerpecker and its close cousin in South India, the Nilgiri flowerpecker, manipulate mistletoe fruits in their beaks to gently squeeze the seed from the pulp. They swallow the sugary, nutritious pulp and wipe their bills on twigs to remove the sticky seed. If the flowerpecker swallows the fruit, the seed passes rapidly through the bird’s gut to be excreted out. To remove the still sticky seed, the birds wipe their rears on twigs or tree branches. In either case, these actions have the same result, which biologists call directed dispersal: the mistletoe seed gets planted where it is likely to germinate.

Feisty flowerpeckers defend their mistletoes, darting at intruders who entered their territories, chasing after them, zipping between branches with rapid ticking calls. Fighting flowerpeckers have been known to fall to the ground while grappling fiercely with each other. One imagines their raging little hearts beating furiously, as they flay and peck at each other to defend what they perceive as their own.

An hour later, I leave with the sense that there is more to this than just a symbiotic evolutionary link between bird and mistletoe in a forest webbed with ecological connections. Perhaps, behind the gleam of that flowerpecker’s eye, there resides, too, a desire to cultivate and protect what she consumes and an aesthetic to adorn the trees in her forest with the prettiest little plants she can find.

TR Shankar Raman is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. His email address is: trsr@ncf-india.org

Plain flowerpecker with a mistletoe fruit in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Photo credit: TR Shankar Raman
Plain flowerpecker with a mistletoe fruit in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Photo credit: TR Shankar Raman
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.