Madras thorn (Pithecellobium dulce), a little known bird tree

Madras thorn (Pithecellobium dulce), an exotic tree introduced to this part of the world from Central America, has now been totally naturalised throughout the tropics. This medium-sized evergreen tree is widely planted along roadsides and in parks and gardens. Each leaf is made up of two pairs of smallish leaflets. At the base of the leaf stalk is a pair of tiny spines. Flowers are greenish-white and 10-20 are grouped into flowering heads (above left). The fruits are coiled pods, constricted between seeds (above right). With maturity they develop a tinge of rose-red and split open to expose a thick white pulp and the shiny black seeds. The white pulp is sweet and can be eaten raw,

Fruits of the Madras thorn has not been widely recognised as a popular source of food for birds, that is, until Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS brought back photographs of different species of birds feasting on them.

During the latter part of July 2011, the two trees growing at the back of Amar’s house in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia, were carrying a bumper crop of fruits. There was an unusual dry spell in the area earlier and this no doubt brought about intense flowering and an extraordinary crop of fruits.

Hordes of birds were seem congregating in the two trees to feast on the ripe fruits. According to Amar, these fruits are “not the easiest fruit to get access to. The fruit is encased in hanging coiled pods, the ripe ones may burst open. The birds have to hang upside down and peck at it to open the pod. They either are able to get small bites or more often large chunks.”

There is a Benjamin fig tree (Ficus benjamina) figging about 40 meters away but hardly any birds were found there. This is rather unusual as any figging tree will be most popular with birds. But obviously the Madras thorn fruits are preferred to the figs.

This is a list of birds feeding on the fruits, as recorded by Amar:
“1. Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier analis) – more than 8 at a time; may swallow large chunks of fruit; seen taking food away to nesting young (top right). A video clip is given below:

“2. Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis strigata) – large numbers, in excess of 30. Mixture of juveniles and adult actively feeding (above left). A video clip is given below:

“3. Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis maculates) – more than 6 at a time, with a mixture of young and mature adults feeding higher in the canopy. Harder to approach for images (above right).

“4. Lineated Barbet (Megalaima lineata hodgsoni) – unsure about numbers, possibly two, seen only once feeding on fruit.

“5. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis musicus) – adult female and juvenile seen taking fruit not from the tree directly but from fruit fallen on a nearby roof. Many episodes of feeding seen. This was unexpected as I have never before seen these birds take fruit, only animal prey. My first fruit feeding observation for this species. A search in the literature for revealed sites that suggest some feeding on fruit but no hard evidence provided. DR Wells 2007 The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 2 only reports animal/insect prey.”

The following is a list of birds suspected of feeding on the fruits, as they were seen in the tree but not actually caught in the act of feeding:
“1. Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala indica) – a number were seen, some in the Madras thorn trees but no actual feeding episodes noted.

“2. Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans) – seen twice in the Madras thorn trees but no actual feeding on fruit noted.

“3. Peaceful Dove (Geopelia striata) – as usual seen at the base of such fruiting trees (like fruiting Ficus), pecking away on the ground. Unsure if was getting remnants of fruit.”

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
August 2011

Additional Information:
“1. Note this report on Drunken Javan Mynas after feeding on the Madras thorn fruits by Richard Hale: LINK.

“2. Motooka et al., 2003. (Weeds of Hawaii’s pastures and natural areas: an identification and management guide. University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources) states: ‘The flowers are pollinated by bees, and the seeds are unusual among legumes in that they have large fleshy brightly coloured arils which make them attractive to birds, which disperse the seeds after eating the juicy pulp. Being legumes, the seeds are likely to have prolonged dormancy in the soil.’

“3. Wikipedia: The seeds are dispersed by birds that feed on the sweet pod LINK.

“4. Source of information on the tree: (i) YC Wee. 2003. Tropical Trees and Shrubs. A Selection for Urban Planting. (ii) Margaret Barwick. 2004. Tropical and Subtropical Trees: An Encyclopaedia.”

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3 Responses

  1. Lee Chiu San

    Regarding your comment about never having seen Magpie Robins eat fruit until now, in many books on aviculture, fruit is recommended for feeding both Magpie Robins and the closely-related Shama. But in over 50 years of bird keeping, I have very, very seldom seen these species eat fruit. Most will refuse fruit unless desperately hungry. And those that take fruit only like it over ripe. Which is borne out by your observation that the Magpie Robins pick it up from the ground, where the ripest, mushy bits fall.

    I have recently observed Magpie Robins eating fallen fruit under a papaya tree in Singapore.

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  2. Surender Agrawal

    What is the sowing seed rate per acre, yield/acre, number of seeds in one kg

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  3. These are grown as wayside trees.

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