Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Bulbul

This evening I managed to photograph a bulbul for the second time on campus. Apparently, they are difficult to capture, so I am particularly pleased.
The bulbul conjures fantasy images and mystic feelings because it occurs in many eastern tales. In Arabic, we often use the name bulbul for members of the bulbul family as well as (mistakenly) for nightingales. Be that as it may, I like bulbuls and love their call.
Pycnonotus barbatus is one of the many birds that found a home in the new gardens of AUC. It is about 18cm long, its head is very dark, the wings and tail are dark gray, the throat and back are also dark but slightly mottled, while the underside is light. The common bulbul is a resident bird in Egypt that breeds throughout Africa. It is luckily considered of Least Concern (IUCN 3.1) on the IUCN Red List of species. Mind you, "common" is a relative term. It is common as far as bulbuls go, but there was only one bulbul among quite a flock of sparrows today.
If you want to observe one, spend some time near the portal before sunset (currently around 5h30 pm). Wait, watch, and look closely. You might see it sitting high in the building to the left as you walk towards the portal. It will eventually come down to the ficus trees on your left, where it feeds on the ripe orange figs. If you are lucky, you might see it perched on an outer branch. Most probably though, you will need to look closely into the crown of the trees and be very patient. Listen intently for a voice that is different from the rest of the chirping, its call is clearly distinguishable amidst the racket of the sparrows.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Melia azedarach - Persian Lilac

Persian Lilac (Chinaberry, Bead Tree, "zanzalacht" in Arabic)
Melia azedarach

When approaching campus from gate 5 you will see rather bare looking trees with white painted trunks lining the fence on either side. I must confess that even I do not find them very aesthetically attractive right now.

Yet I am attracted to these trees and follow them closely. The clusters of dry fruits hanging in the top of the bare branches are typical for this time of the year. These yellowish drupes, which currently resemble very dry and crumpled lemons, have been on the trees for a few months, and will remain there until the next bloom. The new leaves and the showy clusters of small lilac flowers will emerge around March.

The Persian Lilac or Chinaberry is mainly grown for its ornamental value. The tree has further important properties. It is fast growing and, like the other members of the mahogany family, produces timber of high quality. The fruits, seeds, and bark have been used in folk medicine against a variety of ailments but are poisonous if eaten in high quantity. Several active substances have been isolated from these toxins. Some have been shown to have antibacterial properties, are effective against tapeworms, and have been used successfully against pest insects in agriculture.

Remember the "aliens" I met on campus last month as they were reading the caravan? I got it all wrong. They were locals: DDC gardeners planting trees. Something else was alien though. The gardeners were planting the Persian Lilac, an invasive alien species native to South Asia and Australia. The tree is planted in many countries of the world where it has spread and invaded natural habitats. It is for example invasive in the Everglades in Florida and other regions of the Americas. It has been naturalized in our region, but is luckily not considered invasive in Egypt. The seeds are dispersed widely by birds and bats that feed on the fruit. Look close if you want to catch the budding leaves and flowers, and keep your eyes open for the birds and bats, which you might see and hear in the early morning hours or in the evening.

References about
Melia azeradach
  • Danin, A (2000). The inclusion of adventive plants in the second edition of Flora Palaestina. Willdenowia 30:305-314.
  • El-Hadidi, N and Boulos, L (1988). The Street Trees of Egypt: 58-59. AUC Press, Cairo.
  • Langeland, KA and Burks, KC (eds.) (2005). Melia azedarach. In: Identification and Biology of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas: 96-97. University of Florida, IFAS Distribution, Gainesville, (FLEPPC Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council).
References about invasive alien species.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pomegranate Christmas Wishes

People often wish for a "white Christmas" and decorate things accordingly, but the "true colors" of Christmas, at least in Germany, are often green and red. What then, could be better suited than a pomegranate plant? The ornamental (dwarf) pomegranate produces small fruits that are not interesting to eat, but the flowers are of a showy and intense red. Because the plants are small enough for a small yard or even a balcony they have started to become popular over the last years.

To my delight the DDC planted many pomegranates on New Campus. Some grow between gates 4 and 5, and a little orchard was planted behind the library and the administration building, surrounded by petrified wood. The plants are about 1m to 1.5m high, and will continue to bear red flowers and fruits for another few weeks.
The pomegranate is common in our part of the world, and many people I know love the fruit, whether to eat directly, use in the form of grenadine or to drink as "sharbat." The ornamental and the edible plant are varieties of the same species Punica granatum.

Punica granatum is a hardy plant that can survive difficult conditions, which is reflected by the many trees that can be found inside and outside Bedouin gardens in Sinai. The photos of the trees below were taken in Wadi Arbaeen in St. Kathrin, at about 1700m elevation. This is a dry environment, the soil is sandy, and at that elevation, it can get very cold in winter. In fact, we had all the color- and weather-ingredients for a picture-book western Christmas when we went climbing in St. Kathrin 2 years ago. It was below zero degrees Celsius, there was snow, and the pomegranates were in perfect "green and red."

By the way, the sweetness, slight acidity, and intensive taste of the fruit are ideal for jellies. Use the juice of the pomegranates (without the seeds). Make sure to use about 25 to 30% more pectin (or gelatin) and/or sugar than for a jam made out of fruit. I wonder… perhaps this would also taste good together with venison instead of cranberry jam? It is worth a try.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The problem, apparently, is not purple cows but yellow ducks.

The other day, when I was explaining the aim of this blog to a friend of mine, I told him the very illustrating example of how city kids think that cows were purple because of the advertisement for a particular brand of chocolate. The study wonderfully demonstrated how we city folks are alienated from the natural world!
" … In 1995, 40,000 (fourty thousand) children were to color a cow during a competition in Bavaria. Every third child chose the color purple. The Milka Purple Cow is a symbol of quality…" (from the official Milka website, translated from German).

Not true.
No evidence.
None whatsoever.
It turns out it's a myth.

The Journal "Psychologie Heute" published the results of a study by the name "Studie Lila Kuh", which was undertaken in 1997 to investigate this alarming phenomenon (whether, and how serious, the "purple cow syndrome" was). According to this scientific study, only about 1 out of every 100 children that were questioned replied that the color of cows was purple. City kids did not think so more often than country kids, nor did younger ones reply "purple" more often than older ones. Publicly and privately funded projects continue to take place using the theme "purple cow" to address a problem that doesn't exist.

Well, the problem of alienation from nature probably does exist. But the cow, in its purpleness, is not the problem.

Nor is it purple dogs, for that matter. It is YELLOW DUCKS!!

My yellow rubber ducky is supposed to be a problem? But everybody KNOWS that ducks are yellow!

References (I apologize, they are all in German)
  1. Brämer, Rainer (1998) Wie Jugendliche heute die Natur - oder was sie dafür halten - erleben. Psychologie heute, Issue 8/1998: 64-77)
  2. Full report is available at: "Jugendreport Natur 2003" (
  3. Follow-up study is available at "Studie Lila Kuh 1997" (
  4. See also Wikipedia:ädie_der_populären_Irrtümer/_Biologie#K.C3.BChe_.282.29:_Gro.C3.9Fstadtkinder_denken.2C_K.C3.BChe_seien_lila
  5. Example of a current project that uses the theme "purple cow"

Monday, December 1, 2008

Martians read the Caravan

Sunday morning I arrived to class a bit late. I couldn't help it.

It was delightful to cross the courtyard under the Department of Biology. Trees had been planted. Finally!! Continuing to the next courtyard with a great smile pasted on my face, I noticed that different trees had been planted here (more on the trees of both courtyards later).
Then my eye caught something else. Right there, emerging from the roots of the trees: four green figures. Obviously sentient creatures, capable of communicating with each other and of reading a newspaper. "Welcome friendly beings! Are you visiting us from planet Mars?" (Just in case you were not aware - all aliens from Mars are green).
We managed to converse in the same tongue, I was given permissions to photograph them, to post their pictures online and to send them to the Caravan (the pictures, not the creatures). It turned out that they were green primates, members of the species Homo sapiens, clad in their green DDC working attire. They were reading the Caravan.