The Dove and the Parasol Tree

Lemon Dove (Aplopelia larvata), Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa  © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

About 16 years ago, I planted a little Parasol Tree (Polyscias fulva) sapling at the bottom of ‘Turaco Wood’ – our garden in the suburbs of Nelspruit, South Africa. This tree is native to the highlands of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, where it occurs in higher-altitude forests. It is a fast-growing, straight-boled tree that reaches a height of 30 metres, and may rise above the forest as an emergent. In some situations, it may colonise disturbed areas as a pioneer species, much like the Cecropia trees of tropical America.

Our Polyscias has grown steadily over the years (probably faster than any other tree we’ve planted) and now stands at about 18 metres tall. But, crowded-in by other trees, all we really see of it is its smooth, pale grey trunk disappearing into the foliage of its smaller neighbours. From the higher vantage point of our back garden, however, we can see its splendid crown – a fan-like arrangement of huge, velvety, compound leaves. When the tree flowers (July) it is visited by bees, wasps and other pollinating insects (the flowers are small, greenish-yellow and inconspicuous), and I’ve noticed birds such as Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul, Black-capped Bulbul and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird feeding on its berries.

Earlier this week, I was excited to see a Lemon Dove foraging among fallen leaves in the shade of our man-made forest. This is a secretive and rarely seen bird which most people see only as a blur of wings ahead of them on forest trails. We’ve had sporadic sightings over the years and sometimes hear its deep, cooing call from the adjacent nature reserve.

Late yesterday afternoon, I was armed with a rake and about to tidy up some scrub along our bottom fence when I noticed a slight movement out of the corner of one eye. There, just about 2 metres away, was a Lemon Dove – surely the same individual from earlier in the week. As one does with such an encounter, I stood stock-still and enjoyed the moment. The dove’s back is a warm umber, the underparts rich cinnamon, turning to iridescent copper and a hint of pale emerald on the neck and nape; its deep crimson eyes are set in a luminous silvery-white face.  It is truly a subtly beautiful bird. After about a minute, and to my amazement, the dove put its head down and carried on feeding. Sensing the potential for a photograph, I retreated quietly then dashed up to the house to get my camera.

A few minutes later, I am lying on my stomach, having inched along in leopard-crawl mode, from behind the truck of a tree – the Parasol Tree – and am barely a metre from the dove. Why am I on the ground? Because my favourite angle for photographing any animal is eye-level, and since the dove was uncharacteristically relaxed I was pushing my luck. I rattled off a bunch of images, taking in the gentle beauty of the dove and watching it forage and feed. It was probing around, flipping over leaves and small twigs, and finding small shell-shaped seeds – some green, some black. And there, under my chin and elbows were the same seeds. They were, unmistakeably, the seeds of the Parasol Tree towering right above us! This is why the dove was here! It was gorging itself silly on the seeds, so lost in culinary abandonment as to pay no heed to the prostrate primate watching it so intently.

What a neat way to close a loop in the circle of life. One day you dig a hole and plant a tiny tree sapling, then – sixteen years later – you are lying underneath the tree photographing a secretive bird that is gaining sustenance and will later disperse the seeds in its own nutrient-rich droppings.

Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa. August 2013

Note: this appears to be the first documented record of the Lemon Dove feeding on the seeds of Polyscias fulva – no published accounts I could find list this species in its diet.

0 thoughts on “The Dove and the Parasol Tree”

  1. Never a dull moment whether birding gardening or just feeding the soul! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

  2. Very cool encounter – although I do wish someone had been videoing the leopard crawling too! Why ‘Lemon’? Is cinnamon the old name?

    • I much prefer Cinnamon Dove as it is so descriptive but use the names according to the latest official lists. No idea why it is called a ‘Lemon’ Dove these days . . . .

  3. Good day.

    I am an avid birder who lives in Nelspruit.
    I would love to see the lemon dove, are you still in Nelspruit and does the dove still visit your garden, would love the chance to see it.
    I bird often in the reserve off Impala street and hear the lemon dove calling


    • Hi Marc. I am afraid to say that we have left Nelspruit and the wonderful wild garden that I created. I would otherwise have invited you around, although the Lemon Dove (it was a single bird) was only regular when the Parasol Tree was in fruit . . . It is otherwise a shy and tricky bird to see, but I would suggest the Lowveld Botanical Gardens in the early morning, or late afternoon (just before closing time). On lawns – but under trees – close to the AfroMontane forest section . . . All the best, duncan

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