a web page by Don Roberson
  • 136 species in Old World
  • DR personal total: 83 species (61%), 19 photo'd
Sunbirds are small jewels of the Old World tropics. Many species possess glittering iridescent colors. In this feature, plus their small size and their nectar feeding behavior, they recall the hummingbirds. Sunbirds do hover at flowers but they don't fly backwards like hummingbirds, and their flight behavior is much less complex than hummingbirds. The centers of sunbird distribution are tropical Africa and the forests of southeast Asia, including the Greater Sundas and the Philippines. Some lovely examples include Metallic-winged Sunbird of the Philippines (male above) and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (male left) of southern Africa.
Ornithologists have placed hummingbirds in over 100 genera, many of them monotypic, emphasizing the wide diversity in bills, plumages and sizes. In contrast, sunbirds are typically assigned to just 3-4 genera, plus a dozen plus species of spiderhunters in the genus Arachnothera. This has changed somewhat; revisions in Cheke et al. (2001) scattered sunbirds over 15 genera, but still far less than hummingbirds. Except for the spiderhunters, though, another feature than many sunbirds share with many hummingbirds is pronounced sexual dimorphism. This sunbird (right) is a female Southern Double-collared Sunbird, and was paired with the male shown just above.
Sunbirds grace a wide variety of habitats in the Old World, from lowland jungle to montane epiphytes, from flowering trees in open savanna or thornscrub to mangrove specialists. Wherever they are found, they brighten the birder's day. Orange-breasted Sunbird (above) is a long-tailed sunbird endemic to South African fynbos where it searches stands of Protea plants. White-breasted Sunbird (below left) has a patchy distribution in dry savanna woodlands from Tanzania and Congo to Kruger NP, eastern South Africa, where it works the flowers in car parks. Palestine Sunbird (below right) "is a very small, fat-bodied sunbird" occurring in "both dry open grasslands" and "rocky valleys and thick vegetation from sea-level to highlands" on the Arabian Peninsula (Cheke et al. 2001).
Sunbirds can be at their most bewildering in central Africa, where one deals not only with sexual dimorphism but regional differences. This Green-headed Sunbird in Gabon (left) is actually BLUE-headed, not very green at all, as is typical of the species in this part of its rather wide range [there is another species, N. alinae, of montane forests of central Africa which bears the name "Blue-headed Sunbird"]. At La Lopé Reserve in Gabon, I tried to sort out the 14 sunbirds seen in this vicinity of central Africa. These quotes are taken from my original field notes (but generic assignment has changed since then, so some genera stated here are now out-of-date). This was my attempt to sort them out not only by color patterns, but by habitat and niche within habitat (comments in brackets were added later): "Male Collared [Anthreptes collaris] is short-billed" and has "lime green back & head, with blackish band on chest above yellow belly." [This was the commonest sunbird at forest edge at La Lopé & M'Passa reserves.] Inside the forest, "Olive [Nectarinia olivacea] is common in canopy flocks" where it is "large, dull, long-billed" and "sometimes shows yellow [pectoral] tufts." [Probably the commonest sunbird inside the forest at La Lopé & M'Passa reserves.] "Bates' [Nectarinia batesi] is similar [to Olive] but is smaller & shorter-billed in canopy flocks." [I was only satisfied with a single bird at La Lopé in a canopy flock, but others had it daily there.] "Fraser's (Scarlet-tufted) [Anthreptes fraseri] is yellow below & looks warbler-like in canopy flocks -- fortunately I did see red tufts on one of them." [This is an interior forest species.] Blue-throated Brown Sunbird [Nectarinia cyanolaema] "is big & rangy & long-billed & territorial on flowers in canopy of forest." [Fairly common inside the forest]. "I've only seen a female Green-throated [Nectarinia rubescens] (id'd by Patrice Christy) but it was medium in all aspects, yellowish below with distinct streaks, and thin prominent supercilium." Around the lodge at La Lopé, Green-headed [Nectarinia verticalis] is a mid-sized sunbird "in the garden; it is blue-headed in Gabon race with flat mat-olive back" [The only ones I saw were in the lodge garden; photo above.] The "dark coppery one at La Lopé" in the garden is Copper Sunbird [Nectarinia cuprea]. "Male Carmelite [Nectarinia fuliginosa] is the really dark one at Libréville hotel & in La Lopé river scrub inland." "Olive-bellied [Nectarinia chloropygia] is in gardens & forest edge;" it is "small, short-billed, and green with red belly." Green Sunbird [Anthreptes rectirostris] "is tiny, very short-billed, lime-green above and [on] head; thin band on chest (looked grayish) and white belly" [seen in garden at Libreville.] Down along the Ogooué River, "Violet-tailed [Anthreptes aurantium] was restricted essentially to river "islands" or peninsulas; it is "size of Collared & lemony below, but [has] rich violet reflections to crown & upperparts." [It must be very restricted to immediate riverine vegetation.] "Superb [Nectarinia superba] is along river and is black with violet crown/breast/rump & dark chestnut belly." "Reichenbach's [Nectarinia reichenbachii] "is big & heavy & olive with blue-purple patches to crown & chest, only narrowly connected at throat." [It is also fairly restricted to riverine and shore habitats.] I passed my notes on to the late Stuart Keith, and he incorporated some of them into the text of Volume VI of The Birds of Africa (Fry & Keith 2000).
The glittering-green and long-tailed Malachite Sunbird (above) is a specialist with a wide range of elevations. In South Africa it occurs at sea-level among the fynbos, and can seem to get 'lost' among the huge Protea flowers (below left). Yet in east Africa it is a highland specialist, frequenting Lobelia and Kniphofia and eating insects (and even small lizards) as well as nectar. They are on Mt. Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and other impressive peaks, but only above 1200m [4000'], or even 1600m [5200'] or 1800m [=5900'] elevation.

I should not give the impression that sunbirds are mostly African birds. While it is true that ~64% of sunbird species are African — including Madagascar and Indian Ocean sunbirds — some 36% (~49 species, including all the spiderhunters) are from Asia. There are many beauties among them, including Eastern Crimson Sunbird (below) — this aggressive male is raising its yellow rump feathers:

Asian species run the gamut of widespread generalists, such as Purple Sunbird (below left) to island endemics, such as Handsome Sunbird (below right in a nice shot by Blake Matheson), which is endemic to the Philippines. It is closely related to Lovely Sunbird Aethopyga shelleyi, endemic to the Philippine island of Palawan, and the two were split as species very recently (Cheke & Mann 2008). Together they had been called "Shelley's Sunbird," but Handsome has a green crown while Lovely is blue-crowned. There are many island endemics among sunbirds from the Philippines to Wallacea. Many of the 19 species of the genus Aethopyga are island endemics. They tend to be small and short-billed, and include some of the brightest species in the world. Both species of Crimson Sunbird, and both species in the Handsome/Lovely Sunbird set, are among the Aethopyga. These sunbirds are typically restricted to forest habitats.

In contrast, Olive-backed Sunbird (left) is a bird of open scrub, gardens, and lightly-wooded country, and its range is wide, from southeast Asia to northeast Australia and the Solomon Islands. However, with 22 named subspecies and much variation, it may actually be a conglomeration of several sibling species. This male (left) is of race aurora, confined to Palawan and islands of the north Sulu Sea. It is characterized by a bright orange band across the breast but a very plain face. Males of race plateni (below, shown in flight), from Sulawesi, are entirely yellow-bellied but have prominent superciliary and moustachial stripes:

Of course, not all sunbirds are gorgeous and glittering. Brown-throated Sunbird (right) is also a generalist — forest edges, mangroves, scrub, coconut plantations, gardens — with a wide range from southeast Asia to the Philippines and Wallacea. Like Olive-backed Sunbird it has many named subspecies (16; this one is celebensis of Sulawesi and satellite islands). As it is rather plain in appearance, even males can be overlooked as 'hard-to-identity' female sunbirds.

The taxonomy of some sunbirds is still uncertain, but the phylogenic outlines of the family has taken shape (e.g., Cheke et al. 2001, Cheke & Mann (2008), and new information has brought much better focus to spiderhunters (Moyle et al. 2011).

With recent splits there are now 13 Asian spiderhunters, including Purple-naped "Sunbird" Hypogramma hypogrammicum which become Purple-naped Spiderhunter. This unexpected finding was one result of molecular studies by Moyle et al. (2011). Purple-naped "Sunbird" was always an odd "sunbird" in southeast Asia — largish, plain in appearance, and foraged in the understory on insects, including taking spiders from their webs. It also has an unusual tongue: "rolled at the edge to form two semi-tubes for much of its length" (Cheke et al. 2001).

The 'typical' spiderhunters tend to be plain green, gray, brown, or streaked; only one — Whitehead's Spiderhunter Arachnothera juliae of the mountains of northern Borneo — is dramatic in plumage (contrasting black and white streaking and bright yellow rump). All spiderhunters possess long and decurved bills that they use to probe in the canopy or understory for spiders and insects. Yellow-eared Spiderhunter of the Malay Peninsula and Greater Sundas (left) is a mid-sized example of a typical spiderhunter.


The Naked-faced Spiderhunter (above) is a large spiderhunter endemic to the Philippines. This photo was taken during a brief cloud-burst; the spiderhunter just sat motionless until the afternoon shower passed. Unlike most sunbirds, the sexes of spiderhunters are similar in appearance, and both sexes incubate eggs [in sunbirds, like hummingbirds, the gaudy males do not typically help in the breeding chores]. I suspect this Naked-faced Spiderhunter was in juvenal plumage. Not only was it less wary than most spiderhunters I've encountered, but note the white-fringed lesser wing-coverts. Cheke et al. (2001) and Cheke & Mann (2008) state that the juvenal plumage of this scarce species is "unknown" or "undescribed."


Photos: The male Metallic-winged Sunbird Aethopyga pulcherrima was high up Mt. Pollis, Luzon, Philippines, in Dec 2005. Both male and female Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus were at the escarpment viewpoint on Rte 27, near Calvinia, South Africa, in July 2005. The male Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea was at Jonker Dam, not far from Cape Town, South Africa, on 2 July 2005. The male White-breasted Sunbird C. talatala (called "White-bellied Sunbird" in many South Africa books) was at Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, on 27 July 1996. The male Palestine Sunbird C. osea was photographed at Wadi Ammud, Israel, on 26 Oct 1981. The Green-headed Sunbird Cyanomitra verticalis was at La Lopé Reserve, Gabon, on 7 July 1996. The male Malachite Sunbird was near Cape Town, South Africa, on 2 July 2005; the second male in the Protea flowers was at nearby Kirshenbosch Gardens a couple of days later. The male Eastern Crimson Sunbird was at Dumago-Bone NP on Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 4 Oct 2011. The male Purple Sunbird C. asiaticus was in Corbett NP, India, in March 2001. Blake Matheson photographed the male Handsome Sunbird in the PICOP forest, Mindanao, Philippines, in Jan 2006. The male Olive-backed Sunbird C. jugularis aurora was on Palawan, Philippines, in Dec 2005, and the flying male of race plateni at Turbot, Sulawesi, Indonesia, in Sep 2011. The male Brown-throated Sunbird Anthreptes malacensis was at Tambon, Sulawesi, in Sep 2011. The Yellow-eared Spiderhunter Arachnothera chrysogenys was at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia, in north Borneo, on x. The juv Naked-faced Spiderhunter A. clarae was on Mt. Makiling, Luzon, Philippines, in Jan 2006. All photos © Don Roberson, except Handsome Sunbird © Blake Matheson and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Family book:
Robert A. Cheke, Clive F. Mann, and Richard Allen. 2001.
Sunbirds: a Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters, and Sugarbirds of the World. Christopher Helm, London.

This is a very nicely done "family book" — actually, a three-family book — in the Helm Identification Series. In standard format, the first half of the book is color plates with facing text on plumage characters and i.d. points, plus a good showing of subspecific variation. The second half is the main text with range maps, detailed descriptions, full discussion of subspecies, habitat, food, and breeding biology. All these topics are given in short summary fashion, but provide a fine overview. This book was an important first step to sorting out sunbird phylogeny, although it was before most of the molecular studies and was thus based primarily on plumage, structure, and (in some cases) vocalizations. They did not predict, for example, that Purple-naped Sunbird Hypogramma hypogrammicum was actually a spiderhunter! But overall the paintings are crisp, clear, and useful, and the text a good summary on many topics.

Literature cited:

Cheke, R.A., C.F. Mann, and R. Allen. 2001. Sunbirds: a Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters, and Sugarbirds of the World. Helm Identification Guide. C. Helm, London.

Cheke, R.A., and C.F. Mann. 2008. Family Nectariniidae (Sunbirds), pp. 196–320 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 13. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Fry, C.H., and S. Keith. 2001. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 6: Picathartes to Oxpeckers. Academic Press, London & New York.

Moyle, R.G., S.S. Taylor , C.H. Oliveros, H.C. Lim, C.L. Haines, M.A. Rahman, and F.H. Sheldon FH. 2011. Diversification of an endemic Southeast Asian genus: phylogenetic relationships of the spiderhunters (Nectariniidae: Arachnothera). Auk 128: 777-788.




  page created 4 Dec 1999, significantly revised 15-21 July 2012  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved