The mistletoe is a plant everyone has heard of, not in the least in botanical contexts, but there’s more than one myth associated with it. I’m not referring to the one about stolen kisses but the myths caused by the popularity of this piece of folklore – that the mistletoe is just one plant and that it is found in temperate regions. The truth is that mistletoe refers to a group of parasitic plants – they grow on trees and make up for their inadequate root system by borrowing nutrients from the host — and many of them are found in tropical regions. Long before the origin of the Norse myth, where it was elevated as a symbol of love, mistletoe was revered as a healing herb of immortality, likely originating from its evergreen nature, in cold regions where even their host trees lose their foliage.
In the tropics, the mistletoe’s reputation is underwhelming. Barely anyone recognises it and there is hardly any folklore that associates it with anything remotely romantic. There is a different kind of bonding, however. The mistletoe plants grow small berries whose seeds are dispersed by flowerpeckers – a group of birds so partial to mistletoe that it’s hard to see a mistletoe plant without flowerpeckers hobnobbing around it.
In mango orchards where mango tree branches are often hijacked by mistletoe, it’s not uncommon for mixed flocks of sunbirds and the Pale-billed Flowerpecker to hang around. Spotting this plain-looking bird, no larger than a thumb, with its quick flight is a different matter. Just when you sense some movement in the foliage, the bird takes off into the sky with its chik-chik-chik calls.
In urban avenues in Bangalore, the Pale-billed Flowerpecker has taken to the Singapore Cherry tree and this has been my little hack at spotting this restless bird. The umbrella-like canopy of a Singapore Cherry is as low as to graze a tall human’s head, so the flitting of a tiny bird is far easier to track.
It was Kodagu, however, where I managed to spot not one but three species of flowerpeckers: the Pale-billed Flowerpecker with its delicate pink beak, the hardy looking Western Ghats endemic, the Nilgiri flowerpecker with its slightly longer dark beak and a distinct looking Thick-billed Flowerpecker with a stout body and a strong beak to match. Driving through the winding roads of the district where hills, valleys and plains seamlessly meet, as do orchards, coffee estates and dense forests, the scenic views beckon you to stop every few minutes and to smell the coffee flowers, as you gaze at the green mountains. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker invariably shows up on flowering trees by the roadside along with its friends, the sunbirds. On walking trails along orchards and secondary forest, it was more common to see the Nilgiri Flowerpecker. The Thick-billed made solitary and more deliberate appearances invariably while we were tracking minivets or some other small passerines.
It is in these trails that I got a glimpse of the Flowerpeckers’ relationship with the mistletoe. For my city-trained eyes that are more accustomed to garden trees, wild foliage is harder to discern. Relying on the presence of flowerpeckers to spot mistletoe made sense. The bond between the bird and the plant is so intimate that even the Kannada name for the Flowerpecker is the same as the name for mistletoe – badanike. Whether the bird derived its name from the plant (like the Australian species of Flowerpecker, the Mistletoebird) or the plant got its name from the bird, I cannot say. It’s one of those questions that may never need to be answered. There’s a sprinkle of mystery to the romance.