Scintilating sunbirds abound at Gondwana

July 30, 2018


There is an abundance of sunbirds at the moment in response to the availability of flowering plants at Gondwana. The warbling, tinkering, tittering calls of the birds can be heard all over the reserve and dashes of iridescence catches the eye. We have six species of sunbird in this region which include the Malachite, Amethyst, Southern Double-collared, Greater Double-collared, Orange-breasted and the Grey sunbird. The Malachite sunbirds are the largest in the area and besides the Orange-breasted sunbird, are the only ones to have a long tail. All belong to the family Nectariniidae, alluding to their predilection for nectar. They have specialized bills and long tongues for capitalizing on the sugar rich food-source of flowers. Nectar is made available to sunbirds (and insects with long mouth parts such as moths) but engineered to stop other insects from accessing the nectar. As the sunbird feeds on the nectar, pollen transfer takes place via their facial feathers. In some cases sunbirds disobey the rules by taking shortcuts and penetrating the side of flowers in their search for nectar, therefore avoiding being brushed by pollen. This is known as nectar robbing, where the bird gains free access to sugar water without the plant deriving any benefit. 

article2image3Photos: Peter Boardman

Five fabulous sunbird facts –

  1. Some species slow down their metabolism at night or in very cold weather in order to save energy, thereby entering a state of torpor.
  2. They are monogamous with a long lasting pair-bond maintained by allopreening (to preen or groom the feathers of another bird).
  3. The pendant purse-type nests resemble debri caught up at the end of a branch. Spiderwebs are often incorporated into the nest and some species build a protective porch over the side -top entrance.
  4. The brood – parasitic Klaas’s cuckoo is a major nest parasite of Amethyst, Malachite and collared sunbirds in our region. The female cuckoo usually approaches the host nest alone. A host egg is removed for every egg laid and may be eaten. Egg mimicry is well developed and the cuckoo nestling evicts the eggs and chicks of the host. 
  5. Many species have iridescent plumage. The iridescent colour is the result of refraction of incident light caused by the microscopic structure of the feather barbules. The refraction works like a prism, splitting the light into rich component colors. 


Text: Nadine Clarke
Photos: Peter Boardman