To swallow or to regurgitate seeds

on 1st January 2006


I was watching an Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis) perched on the ripened fruiting bunch of my Alexandra palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) one morning when I noticed it regurgitating a seed. This it did a few times before picking out one to swallow (left). The nearly rounded 10×12 mm fruit has a covering of pulp that is less than1 mm thick. This coral-red covering encloses a single seed.

Intrigued by this behaviour, I asked around but even seasoned birdwatchers could not give me an explanation. Then I stumbled upon a paper by Richard Corlett and his student on the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea).

Because frugivores generally have a reduced protein requirement, they can easily subsist on a fruit diet. Such birds also exhibit a high ingestion rate and a short gut retention time, as well as reduced loss of nitrogen through the faeces and urine. Some of these birds supplement their protein requirement with insects or the seeds in the fruits they ingest.

The study shows that Asian Koels swallow large fruits like those of Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), Syzygium chumini and Arenga engleri whole. But they rapidly regurgitate the cleaned seeds, dropping them under the tree, rather than defecating them. This appears to be a common adaptation of specialist frugivores, presumably serving to reduce the weight and volume of material that must pass through the gut. On the other hand other birds peck the fruits and leave the seeds. When eating fruits like figs with small seeds, koels swallow them whole and defecate the seeds below the tree.

The intake of indigestible seeds results in extra load in the gut. The energy expenditure necessary for flight is thus increased. Additional energy may also be required to manipulate the seeds in the gut, separating them from the pulp and transporting them through the gut. Again, the presence of the indigestible seeds in the gut limits further food ingestion. This in turn reduces the rate at which food can be processed and nutrients assimilated.

YC Wee
1st January 2006

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

12 Responses

  1. I was at Ubin on Sunday and saw the Starling actually regurgitate the whole fruits instead of just the seeds. Any idea why the birds do that? Over supply of foods? The food not suitable?? Photos are on my blog.

    Thank you.

  2. There is an interesting paper on the plant point of view on this.

    Hegde, S G, R Uma Shaanker & KN Ganeshaiah (1991). “Evolution of seed size in the bird-dispersed tree Santalum album L.: a trade off between seedling establishment and dispersal efficiency.”. Evol. Trends. Plants 5: 131–135.

  3. I am unable to locate the copy on my system. I had it when I tried to spruce up the Wikipedia entry on the Asian Koel. An alternative, if you do not have access to literature databases, is to contact one of the authors K N Ganeshaiah kng AT vsnl DOT com

    Not sure how one can find each other\’s mail id here.

  4. Pingback: arenga

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