Beautiful sunbirds are found in beautiful habitats of West and East Africa

San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants

Male beautiful sunbird
Female beautiful sunbird
Male beautiful sunbird
Male and female beautiful sunbirds
Left: male beautiful sunbird  Right: female beautiful sunbird

HABITAT AND DIET

Beautiful habitat.  Beautiful sunbirds are found in beautiful habitats of West and East Africa. These birds flit about savannas, semi-arid or dry forest, wooded grasslands, riparian areas, and even villages and gardens.

Food groups:  Beautiful sunbirds have a well-rounded diet of nectar, insects, spiders, and the flesh of fruits and berries. Experts say these birds visit flowers of more than 20 different plant genera, including acacia, aloe, jacaranda, and lantana. They typically forage singly and occasionally in small groups. Males chase intruders away from nectar sources in their territory.

At the Zoo, chicks devour spiders, crickets, mealworms, wax worms, fruit flies and other small insects. When the parents feed the chicks, they get spiders exclusively. A few years ago, a chick hatched at the Zoo and wildlife care specialists had to collect up to 200 spiders per day for the parents to feed the little one! Beautiful sunbird adults at the Zoo feed on artificial nectars containing carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals (especially calcium), along with fresh fruit and an assortment of insects.

It’s a crime. Beautiful sunbirds even go so far as to steal nectar, using their sharp bill to puncture the base of the flower without touching the pollination structure. This type of nectar robbing violates nature’s “agreement” between flower and pollinator. It’s a crime against nature!

FAMILY LIFE

Hanging at home.  Nests are constructed by female sunbirds. They are compact, purse-shaped shelters suspended from tree branches with a single central entrance. A variety of fibers are used in nest construction, including bark, twigs, dried grass, leaves, vegetable down, plants stems, feathers, and snakeskin. It is tightly bound with spider’s silk, especially at the entrance and where it is attached to a branch.

The nests are sometimes “decorated” with lichen, while some have a “porch” or trailing “beard” of vegetation hanging from the bottom. The inside may be softened with feathers, vegetable down, or even human litter like paper and lightweight plastic. Within this shelter, a female will lay a clutch of one to two fragile eggs, which she will incubate for about two weeks.

Nesting instinct.  Courtship is an elaborate affair. Male displays are extravagant, with much singing and “dancing” to get a female’s attention. Males may chase down the females until they settle on a perch. In addition to a bright red breast band, flanked by yellow on each side, and iridescent plumage, males also sport “tail streamers” or elongated tail feathers to further entice females. Once she looks his way, he spreads his wings and raises his tail, flicking his wings while wooing her with song. If he’s lucky, she will quiver her wings back at him.

Breeding takes place during the rainy season, so insects will be plentiful to feed the chicks. Males are territorial, chasing away rivals; he may court more than one female at once. The brunt of parental duties rests with the females, who build the nest, incubate eggs, brood the young and feed the chicks. The male chimes in with attending the nest and helping feed the chicks.

Tiny hatchlings may have short, gray down and yellow stripes along the jawline. Fledging period is 14 to 18 days, and they gradually venture farther from the nest. Parents continue to feed the youngsters for about two weeks.

Call songs:  Beautiful sunbirds vocalize to others in their social group. Sunbirds in this genus Cinnyris have more complex songs than other sunbirds’ simple ones. Their varieties of vocalizations indicate arrival at foraging sites and defense of territories, advertise to mates, and communicate with offspring and conspecifics.

Watch out!  Larger birds prey on these pint-sized gems, and sunbird eggs may be eaten by snakes.

CONSERVATION

Beautiful sunbirds are common and widespread throughout their range, where habitat is suitable. They are flexible and adaptable, even making use of human-altered areas like gardens. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species lists them as species of Least Concern, with a stable population trend. However, it is important to conserve habitat and prevent illegal forestry and severe habitat fragmentation.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is committed to protecting birds like the beautiful sunbird. Together, we can save wildlife worldwide.

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