Creating ‘padkos’ for sunbirds and sugarbirds

Pupils from Crestway High School showing off hands that have planted in the project.

Eight schools from across the peninsula have taken on a project to create fynbos gardens; specifically designed to provide “padkos” for migrating sunbirds and sugarbirds.

The gardens have been dubbed “filling stations” – and the long-term plan is to link the Muizenberg Mountains to the Boland Mountains.

This will be done by creating a network of fynbos gardens in schools – a migration corridor for nectar feeding birds, across the Cape Flats – by planting gardens of bird-pollinated plants on school grounds.

These padkos gardens will sustain the migration of these tiny, but vital, little birds.

The Iingcungcu Project is a joint initiative of Stellenbosch University, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the City of Cape Town. Iingcungcu is a Xhosa word that means long-billed birds, or alternatively, royalty.

It is imperative to conserve nectar-feeding birds, including sunbirds and sugarbirds, because between just four species of these birds, more than 350 plant species are pollinated – including proteas, as well as many threatened plant species.

On Thursday August 10, the padkos gardens were established in four primary schools which have joined Muizenberg, Steenberg, Crestway and Lavender high schools in the project.

The four new schools planting bird-pollinated plants on their school grounds include Muizenberg, Levana, Prince George and Steenberg primary schools.

These schools help bridge the gap between Rondevlei and Muizenberg Mountain, which deals with the project’s structured short-term plan.

The Iingcungcu Project was first launched in 2014 as the brain-child of Bongani Mnisi – as an MSc project – under the supervision of Professor Anton Pauw at Stellenbosch University and Dr Sjirk Geerts at CPUT. Mr Mnisi has since completed his MSc and is now head of nature conservation for the City of Cape Town.

The project is currently led by Aaniyah Omardien of Lakeside and Ceinwen Smith of Kalk Bay.

“Our three-year vision is to establish an ecological corridor for nectar feeding birds from the Silvermine section of the Table Mountain National Park to Rondevlei Nature Reserve, over 5km of city, using eight regularly spaced school gardens,” Ms Omardien said.

“Four of these gardens have already been established. The four new schools which have just been added to the corridor are the junior schools where we have established relationships, and have three years of pre-planting bird monitoring data,” she explained.

“By expanding to the junior schools that feed the high schools, we hope to build continuity in environmental education – as well as foster a relationship with nature and what it provides for us.”

The eight schools involved were selected in a corridor linking the isolated Rondevlei with the nearby Muizenberg mountains.

In April and May, 2014, gardens measuring 200m2 were created at the four high schools, using a total of 3 700 individual plants from a list of 23 species.

The project arose from Mr Mnisi’s observation that nectar-feeding birds, particularly Malachite sunbirds, do not venture far into the urban areas that surround the Table Mountain National Park, nor other smaller conservation areas on the Cape Flats.

Ms Omardien said this meant that populations of rare plants which were marooned in small conservation areas within the city may never get visited.

The pupils from each of the schools involved glean much benefit from their engagement in all aspects of the project.

“The activities they take part in, such as planting, nectar measurement and the collection and analysis of bird census data, integrate well into the natural sciences curriculum and offer the opportunity to teach concepts such as pollination, community ecology, sexual reproduction and dispersal, all without leaving the school grounds,” Ms Omardien pointed out.

“Natural areas are outdoor classrooms in which topics such as geography, physics, chemistry and biology come to life.

“Apart from being an invaluable aid in teaching the schoolcurriculum,contact with nature has been shown to instil good qualities, such as leadership, sense of place, ownership and responsibility in developing young people, as well as lowering levels of anxiety and depression,” she added.

Ms Omardien said very specific plant species were selected and planted in the gardens and chosen to provide a year-long nectar resource. Only species that are indigenous to the Cape Flats are planted.

“We have employed Neil Major from Cape Flats Landscaping to co-ordinate and support the planting at the four new schools,” said Ms Omardien.

“From each of the four high schools, one Grade 10 class participated. The pupils were involved in the planting, they completed custom designed ecology worksheets, watched a video about the project and used microcapillary tubes and refractometers to measure nectar volumes and sugar concentrations in nectar producing plants planted in their school gardens,” Ms Omardien said.

Stellenbosch University gave ethical clearance to conduct the work and permission to work with pupils was obtained from the Western Cape Education Department and from parents.

Professor Pauw has been teaching and conducting research in ecology at Stellenbosch University for 12 years. Together with Dr Geerts and Bongani Mnisi, he started the Iingcungcu Project in
2013. “There is a lot of theory out there: ecological theory about the importance of corridors linking natural areas, and sociological theory about the importance of nature in the lives of people. So we thought we would just try it out,” he said.

Dr Geerts is an ecologist by training. He presented the “building biodiversity leadership” aspect of the Iingcungcu Project at the People Development in Africa conference in May 2017.

“The Iingcungcu Project is unique in that it is based on scientific research, which continues to determine the ecological and sociological directions of the project,” he said.

Mr Mnisi has more than a decade of experience working in biodiversity and water resources management. “This project brings together both the natural and social sciences, where people and nature meet for one reason only, namely sustainable cities,” he said.

Mr Major added: “I am very pleased to be part of the project and to help extend the corridor of plants that will attract sunbirds and sugarbirds across the Flats from Muizenberg mountain to Rondevlei.”

Ms Omardien has 10 years of experience working in the field of conservation, including as manager of the WWF’s South Africa Marine Programme.

“Working on the ground with the teachers and learners has certainly opened my eyes to how privileged most of us are to live as comfortably as we do. It has been amazing spending time with the learners in the gardens and sharing South Africa’s natural heritage with them and seeing how that lifts their spirits and creates enthusiasm,” she said.