What is your fig tree?

During the year, no African bird touches a fig tree. Fig trees are what Brussels sprouts are for young kids, minus the nutrient value: no sane bird touches a fig tree, especially when there is any other source of food around.

However, when food falls short, birds aren’t that picky: they turn to the fig trees for their meal. Where usually the fig trees would remain virtually untouched, now they are the epicenter of a feeding frenzy. Even more, when fig trees are removed or absent in hard times, most bird populations fall dramatically. Fig trees are the buffer between a hungry bird and extinction.

The fig tree might not be the food of choice for any spoiled bird, but the fig tree is a keystone resource. As is the fig wasp, the insect (and keystone species) that is responsible for maintaing a healthy fig tree population.

I learned this talking to Piet van den Hout yesterday, who is a leading scientist in predatorial behavior of birds.

It made me ask: what is your fig tree? What resource or person are you ignoring most of the time, until times are hard? And what resource might not be the most visible one, but is your buffer between being hungry and extinction?

It is easy to overlook the importance of the fig tree or fig wasp in bird survival and to invest heavily in other, more visible elements. Maybe in species with a higher cuteness factor than fig wasps. Maybe in large fields of fruit trees. And to not invest in these fig trees, who are pretty much ignored by most birds most of the year and aren’t the most sexy thing to invest in.

Determine your keystone resource and invest heavily. Sexy, cute or not.

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