News Column

Make way for the birds

June 16, 2014

John Yeld


THINK of this garden as a petrol station where birds flying across the now mostly developed Cape Flats can get refuelled, suggests Stellenbosch University associate botany professor, Anton Pauw.

He's talking to three young pupils from Lavender Hill Secondary in a newly created garden at their school, and he's explaining the project that he conceptualised some years ago and that has now become a reality, partly through a Master's degree research project of a student that he's co-supervising, Bongani Mnisi.

The project involves creating small indigenous gardens at four schools - Lavender Hill, Muizenberg Secondary, Steenberg Secondary, and Crestway Secondary - that are potential stepping stones on a corridor route for birds migrating between the Table Mountain National Park (in this case, from the mountains above Muizenberg) and Rondevlei nature reserve and other small natural elements making up the False Bay Ecology Park.

And it's a route aimed at facilitating the movement of four indigenous bird species in particular: Cape sugarbird, malachite sunbird, orange-breasted sugarbird and the southern double-collared sugarbird. These birds are all important nectar-feeders, and are among similar-feeding birds that play a critical role in pollinating some 350-odd indigenous fynbos plant species.

There's a nice symmetry about this project. Mnisi is a regional manager in the biodiversity management sector of the City of Cape Town where, for the past six years, he's been managing the largest part of the city's biodiversity network, including three nature reserves.

Although growing up in Mpumalanga near the Kruger National Park, Mnisi studied nature conservation at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where, he explained, he could pursue research that combined his love of nature with his concerns about societal development and the youth.

Here he met Dr Sjirk Geerts, who had also been supervised by Pauw during his doctoral studies and who suggested that Mnisi do his MSc through Stellenbosch University.

"The background is that Anton and I have done some work on nectar-feeding birds and the impact of (habitat) fragmentation - they avoid smaller fragments," Geerts explained.

"And we've shown from a plant perspective that this fragmentation leads to plant reduction and (reduced) seed output, and long-term population declines in some species.

"Anton has also shown that particularly the malachite sunbird and the sugarbird don't like moving far into cities. So this is almost a trial project - it's small-scale, just one corridor - to see if we can create stepping stones between the big natural areas and the smaller areas where we know that numbers of nectar-feeding birds are declining."

If the project is successful, it will re-link the broken migration routes for especially nectar-feeding birds, with the gardens acting as stepping-stones across densely-populated urban areas.

And that's just part of Mnisi's thesis. He's also hoping to identify young people with a talent for biodiversity and develop their environmental leadership skills, and his work will also |tie into a larger research project that is attempting to answer the ecological question of whether birds really |matter.

Starting in late April, he and colleagues planted more than 3 000 plants of 25 species at the four senior schools, while four junior schools in the same area are forming a control group. The very specifically selected species are all bird-pollinated and have flowers in the red/orange spectrum that is particularly attractive to birds - like the sugarbush protea, aloes, chasmanthus, wild dagga, cobra lily, tree fuchsia, lachenalia and the Cape Flats heath, an erica species that was extinct in the wild before individual plants were rediscovered in botanical gardens around the world.

After conceptualisation and the second stage that involved planting, stage three of the project will involve monitoring to see what birds visit the gardens.

But this will only start next year and will only involve one Grade 10 class per school.

"We want to see whether their involvement in this project has any impact in how they perceive the environment and how they learn as a result of that - that's part of my thesis," Mnisi explains.

And how has he found the response?

"The kids have been absolutely enthusiastic and the teachers have been very interested. You can can see how |this garden is being maintained - I |was going to do some weeding but you can see the school is already doing that," he replies.

And Pauw suggests the response from the other subjects will be equally enthusiastic: "I think it's going to be a bird heaven!"

Cape Argus

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Source: Cape Argus (South Africa)

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