a web page by Don Roberson
HONEYEATERS Meliphagidae
  • 180 species in Australasia
  • DR personal total: 86 species (48%), 11 photo'd

The Honeyeaters are a very large family essentially restricted to Australasia. At least "one species occurs in every terrestrial habitat in Australia, from tropical rain forest to arid shrubland, from mangroves to suburbia" (Simpson & Day 1996). The New Holland Honeyeater (left, in a fine shot by Murray Lord), for example, is a bird of coastal heathland along the east and southern coasts of Australia. They are a dominant group of birds in Australia (over 70 species) and New Guinea (over 60 species). In some habitats more than a dozen species co-occur seasonally.

Honeyeaters are among the most successful of the families that arose during the great Australasian radiation, during which many types of birds evolved in isolation for eons.

The major groups in that radiation are divided between the menurids (including the lyrebirds, scrub-birds, fairy-wrens and relatives) and the corvoids (crows, birds-of-paradise, butcherbirds and numerous relations). The honeyeaters are in the menurid group (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990, Sibley 1996). Among the most successful of the honeyeaters are two genera that widely dispersed across the south Pacific: the genera Lichmera and Myzomela. An examples of Lichmera is Dark-brown Honeyeater (right) of New Caledonia. There are 11 species of Lichmera, mostly dull brown or olive jobs with decurved bills for nectar feeding. Five of them have spread to the Lesser Sundas and thus are considered to be part of the Asian avifauna. Only one of them — Indonesian Honeyeater L. limbata — just crosses west of Wallace's Line, on Bali, but honeyeaters have not invaded the Asian mainland. Presumably they are out-competed by other families that arose there.


In contrast, the Myzomela honeyeaters have met no competitors and have colonized most of the islands in the south Pacific; the 30 species are now scattered north to Micronesia, west to Timor, and east to Fiji. The Micronesian Myzomela (left) is bright red with a fine, decurved bill; other species have various patterns of red, black, or red-and-black. Five species of honeyeater actually reached Hawaii, but all are now extinct (and none are included in the totals above). The last to survive was Kauai Oo Moho braccatus. The last vocalizing male was heard in 1987.
In Australia, honeyeaters are major pollinators of many endemic plants. Macleay Honeyeater (right), for example, pollinates forest plants on the York Peninsula. The principal anatomical feature of the family is a brush-tipped tongue that functions like a paint brush, collecting fluids by capillary action. There are many variations in the details of tongue structure among the species, but most feed by inserting the tongue in the nectar of a flower, extending and retracting it about 10 times per second, squeezing out the liquid against projections in the roof of the mouth, and allowing the liquid to flow along the grooves into the throat. The alimentary tract is also adapted for nectar in an arrangement that lets the liquid pass directly to the intestines but separating things that require more digestion, like insects caught during the feeding, to be retained in a separate chamber of the stomach.
Many species of honeyeater are adapted to eucalyptus blossoms, but both on that continent and elsewhere in Australasia, a wide variety of flowering plants are visited. Yellow Wattlebird (left, in a nice shot by Murray Lord) is an endemic of Tasmania and King Island, where it occurs in small flocks. It is a noisy, acrobatic bird attracted to flowering trees. It is also the largest honeyeater in Australia, edging out Blue-faced Honeyeater (below) of northern Australia and the Trans-Fly region of s. New Guinea for that claim. Blue-faced is a butcherbird-sized honeyeater of open woodlands that uses old nest of Australo-Papuan babblers [Pomatostomidae] as a base for its own nests, sometimes evicting the original tenants by force.
Honeyeaters have colonized and thrived in New Guinea, many South Pacific islands, and in New Zealand. One of the most unique is the Tui (right) of New Zealand, with its feathered throat ornament recalling an old English cleric's collar (and thus the old name "Parsonbird"). The Tui can be very territorial around its nest or a favored food source, and vigorously chase other Tui and other birds from their territory. When breeding, they may commute up to 10 km in a day to visit a prime nectar source. They also soar above the canopy and then make a noisy, near-vertical dive back into the forest. Their song is rich, fluid, and complex "with croaks, coughs, clicks, grunts, wheezes and chuckles" (Heath & Robertson 1996). Recent molecular studies have confirmed that the Tui is a honeyeater (Driskell et al. 2007).
Biochemical evidence supports the notion that the many different honeyeaters are a monophyletic group (Driskell & Christidis 2004), although various specific birds that have been in the past assigned to honeyeaters are not. For example, Bonin Island Honeyeater Apalpteron familiare of Bonin Island, Japan, is not a honeyeater but is a white-eye (e.g., Sibley 1996). The longbills and "pygmy honeyeaters" of New Guinea (genera Oedistoma and Toxorhamphus) are not honeyeaters but are berrypeckers [family Melanocharitidae] but the two species of straightbills in New Guinea (genus Timeliopsis) are, indeed, honeyeaters (Driskell & Christidis 2004). A recent and very exciting find is that MacGregor's Bird-of-Paradise Macgregoria pulchra of alpine meadows in New Guinea is not a bird-of-paradise, but is a giant honeyeater most closely related to Melipotes honeyeaters (Cracraft & Feinstein 2000). It now becomes the largest honeyeater on earth.

Another interesting result of molecular studies was the discovery that Australian chats, almost universally considered a separate family "Epithianuridae," were aberrant honeyeaters. The five arid-adapted species in two genera are terrestrial, mostly in the interior of Australia. Crimson Chat (left, in a stunning shot by David Fisher) is an example; it is nomadic in drier woodlands and grasslands.

Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990) were the first to include the Australian chats among the Meliphagidae, largely on biochemical evidence but also because they have brush-tipped tongues. Further DNA analysis (e.g., Driskell & Christidis 2004) confirms that this group is "nested deeply within the family Meliphagidae." The Handbook of the Birds of the World series will apparently retain the Australian chats as a separate family but it is now clear this is unsupportable. As I had already created a "family page" for this group, I have relabeled it a subfamily [Epthianurinae], and more information is at that link.

Many honeyeaters inhabit rain forest and eat primarily fruit and insects (indeed, all honeyeaters eat at least some insects). The bare-faced friarbirds — four in Australia, eight others scattered from the Lesser Sundas, Moluccas, and New Guinea to New Caledonia — are among these forest species. This Helmeted Friarbird (right) was visiting a feeder inside the forest on the Atherton tablelands of northeast Australia. Fruits are taken by many species in the jungle, and some woodland honeyeaters are specialists. Painted Honeyeater Grantiella picta, for example, specializes on mistletoe berries and is therefore somewhat nomadic throughout the interior of east Australia.

New Guinea boosts several successful rainforest groups The Meliphaga honeyeaters have diversified into 13 species, some of them closely resembling each other. Most are plain olive species with yellow spots on the auriculars. But other New Guinea honeyeaters run to the more dramatic, with plumed "beards" on some some Melidectes species (11 in total) to bare wattles around the face on various Melipotes (3 montane New Guinea endemics) all the way to the huge and spectacular MacGregor's "Bird-of-Paradise" Macgregoria pulchra. [I wonder what name will be chosen when its true taxonomic assignment is widely accepted?]

Australia remains the heart of honeyeater country, with over 70 species. Some, like Yellow-plumed Honeyeater (left), are eucalyptus specialists. Yellow-plumed inhabits eucalypt habitats in mallee woodlands, and is an example of another successful genus (Lichenostomus; 20 species total).

Whatever the species, honeyeaters have a close mutual association with the Australasian flora. They are important pollinators of many Australasian trees and bushes (e.g., Eucalyptus, Banksia, Callistemon, Correa, Epacris) and they disperse the seeds of various acacias and mistletoe, among others (Simpson & Day 1996). Like the hummingbirds of the Andes, which have evolved in concert with the flowers on which they both feed and pollinate, honeyeaters and these Australasia flora are tied together by mutual bonds of dependence. Neither can survive without the other.

Many other honeyeaters weave fragile, beautifully made cups of grasses and cobwebs, and suspend them from bushes and over water. A number of species, including the large miners in the genus Manorina, are cooperative breeders with young males from the previous brood helping to feed the new babies.

All of the three miners (or four, if one includes the endangered Black-eared Miner M. melanototis as a separate species, although it integrades with Yellow-throated Miner M. flavigula) have bare skin around the eye, a feature shared by Blue-faced and Macleay Honeyeaters, and a number of others.

Molecular evidence shows that two colorful spinebills (Acanthorhynchus) are the most unique group among the honeyeater family, as they are in a sister clade to all the other honeyeaters combined (Driskell & Christidis 2004). An example is Eastern Spinebill (right; a shot by W. Ed Harper). These are fine-billed species of undergrowth and thickets, with one species in eastern Australia and another in the west.

This brief summary of the Meliphagidae can barely touch on the main groups. There are obscure and fascinating species galore. Some are mangrove specialists; others are wanderers in the arid Australian interior. In many places, there may be ten or more species, some of them feeding together at rich sources of nectar or protein (e.g., outbreaks of lerps). In these circumstances, larger species often dominate and exclude the smaller ones from the richest niches, but all do reasonably well, utilizing adjacent minor nectar sources. Having evolved in isolation and becoming successful, honeyeaters offer rich areas for study. The brief biological information on this page is primarily sifted from Frith (1979), Blakers et al., (1984), Sibley (1996), and Simpson & Day (1996).


Photos: Murray Lord photographed the New Zealand Honeyeater Phylidonyris novaehollandiae at Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, in Dec 2005. The Dark-brown Honeyeater Lichmera incana was at Parc du Riviere Bleaue, New Caledonia, on 7 Jan 1998. The Micronesian Myzomela Myzomela rubratra was caught in mid-flight on Moen I., Truk, Micronesia, on 30 Aug 1978. Both the Macleay Honeyeater Xanthotis macleayana and the Helmeted Friarbird Philemon bucerodies were at the feeders at Cassowary House, Kuranda, Queensland, on 3 Jan 1998. Murray Lord photographed the Yellow Wattlebird Anthochaera paradoxa at Hobart, Tasmania, in Dec 2005. The Blue-faced Honeyeater Entomyzon cyanotis was photographed on 2 Nov 1983 along the MacLeod River, near Mt. Carbine, Queensland, Australia. The Tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae was on Tiritiri Matangi I., off North Island, New Zealand, on 26 Dec 1997. David Fisher photographed the Crimson Chat Ephthianura tricolor in the Australian interior in Oct 2006 [he says the male was courting a female, and responded to squeaking]. The Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Lichenostomus ornatus was in the mallee of Wyperfeld Nat'l Park, Victoria, Australia, on 11 Nov 1983. W. Ed Harper photographed the Eastern Spinebill Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris at Canberra, Australia, on 24 March 1996. All photos © 2008 Don Roberson, except New Zealand Honeyeater and Yellow Wattlebird © Murray Lord, the Crimson Chat © David Fisher, and the spinebill © W. Ed Harper and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There has never been a complete family book on the Honeyeaters, although Longmore (1991) covered all the Australian species which were then thought included in the family. It was comparatively superficial when considered among other family tomes. The Handbook of the Birds of the World has not yet reached this group, but it should be excellent. Alas, HBW plans to consider the Australian Chats as a separate family, for reasons of tradition, although it is now beyond dispute that they are simply very aberrant honeyeaters.

Literature cited:

Blakers, M., S.J.J.F. Davies, and P. N. Reilly. 1984. The Atlas of Australian Birds. Royal Australian Ornith. Union, Melbourne Univ. Press, Carlton, Victoria.

Driskell, A.C., and L. Christidis. 2004. Phylogeny and evolution of the Australo-Papuan honeyeaters (Passeriformes, Meliphagidae). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 31: 943-960.

Driskell, A., L. Christidis, B.J. Gill, W.E. Boles, F.K. Barker, and N.W. Longmore. 2007. A new endemic family of New Zealand passerine birds: adding heat to a biodiversity hotspot. Australian J. Zool. 55: 73-78.

Cracraft, J., and J. Feinstein. 2000. What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proc. R. Soc. London B. 267:233-241.

Frith, A.J. 1976, 1979. Reader's Digest Complete Birds of Australia. Reader's Digest, Sydney, Australia.

Heather, B., and H. Robertson. 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Viking, Aukland, N.Z.

Longmore, W. 1991. Honeyeaters and their allies of Australia. Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, Australia.

Sibley, C.G. 1996. Birds of the World, on diskette, Windows version 2.0. Charles G. Sibley, Santa Rosa, CA.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Simpson, K, and N. Day. 1996. A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, revised 5th ed. Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood, Victoria, Australia.




  page created 25 Dec 2003, revised 6-8 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved