Captivated ... Experiencing the wonder of nature.
Recently in the high-rise landscape of Singapore we experienced a rare insight into a slice of nature. For over a month, a mated pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds captivated us as they prepared for the arrival of their babies. The birds collected twigs, web and mosses to construct their home. It was round like a ball and hung off the branch of a tree just outside our dining room window. The entrance to the nest had an eave for the birds to perch on before entering the deep, well-lined cavity where the female laid her eggs.
As soon as we discovered the nest, we banned the boys from playing soccer in the garden. Initially, they were quite put out by being denied their favourite activity, but this soon gave way to curiosity and enthusiasm once the eggs were inside. Each night the female would return to incubate them. We would huddle around the window watching and waiting for the first sight of the babies. A clue came when my husband noticed a trail of ants leading along the branch into the nest. We feared the worst assuming the babies had died and the ants were feeding on them, but it turned out they were attracted to the remains of the eggshells. Our daughter shouted in delight at the first glimpse of a tiny beak, wide-open, bobbing up and down, waiting for its parents to deliver food. The following days were busy ones for the parents as they darted back and forth feeding their nestlings. At nightfall the female would return to sit in the nest.
We were certain the baby birds had perished, but miraculously they were still alive. The prime suspect was lurking nearby, our cat Pavlov ...
Then tragedy, we came home one afternoon to discover the nest had been struck from the tree and was lying in the centre of our lawn. This was devastating. We were certain the baby birds had perished, but miraculously they were still alive. The prime suspect was lurking nearby, our cat Pavlov, a lovely ginger cat with a thick coat and a strong resemblance to Garfield. While he is very docile with people, his instinct to hunt is strong - when we first brought him home as a kitten, he shocked us by pouncing on a Huntsman spider and eating it whole. In Singapore, I’m regularly rescuing geckos from his claws so in hindsight the nest was always a target.
We then had to figure out the best way to secure it back onto the branch. My husband did this by weaving some string around it, but it wasn’t very stable and the eave was no longer there making it difficult for the parents to deliver food to the babies. Our other concern was that human interference would mean the parents might never return. We were also left with the problem of what to do with the cat. My daughter who is very close to the cat was very upset and while we all love him, I must admit he wasn’t at the top of my favourite list that afternoon. The solution – banishment for two weeks to ‘The Cat Hotel’ a place we send him when on holiday, I assured her he would be well cared for – I’d paid extra for an air-conditioned room (seriously). In ‘service friendly’ Singapore, they came and picked him up first thing the next morning.
That night the female came back to nest. We were thrilled, although worried that with her weight the nest would fall apart. And it did. The next morning the bottom half was hanging on by a few twigs. Some white tulle from the girls’ dress up box was the perfect fix, I stitched it around the base and it acted like a sling. Again, all we could do was wait and hope that despite our intervention the parents would return. Sadly, they didn’t. The sequence of events of the past few days had scared them off. I called a local organization that specialises in wildlife care for advice. They told me Sunbirds are timid and highly sensitive to human interference and if the parents didn’t return then it was unlikely anything could be done to help the nestlings. Just looking at the beautiful little beaks wide-open, squawking for their parents was heartbreaking. It was a very distressing day.
Good news came the following evening when we noticed the long thin beak of the mother sticking out of the entrance to the nest. We were ecstatic. We knew then that the babies would thrive. Over the following weeks, we watched enthralled as they outgrew their nest and as fledglings made their first attempts at flying. Eventually they left our garden to go and build their lives somewhere else.
To witness a cycle of nature so intimately was a rare experience for our family. Watching the antics of these industrious birds was absorbing and we were all involved in both a practical and emotional way. It is wonderful to know that there are now two more Sunbirds in the world. The whole encounter was a valuable lesson for us about the importance of preserving the natural environment and demonstrated the havoc domestic animals can cause to fragile native wildlife.