Sunbirds and spiderhunters make up the family Nectariniidae of passerine birds. They are small, slender passerines from the Old World, usually with downward-curved bills. Many are brightly coloured, often with iridescent feathers, particularly in the males. Many species also have especially long tail feathers. Their range extends through most of Africa to the Middle East, South Asia, South-east Asia and southern China, to Indonesia, New Guinea and northern Australia. Species diversity is highest in equatorial regions.

Sunbirds and spiderhunters
Male Vigors's sunbird from Maharashtra, India
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Superfamily: Passeroidea
Family: Nectariniidae
Vigors, 1825

16, see text

There are 151 species in 16 genera. Most sunbirds feed largely on nectar, but will also eat insects and spiders, especially when feeding their young. Flowers that prevent access to their nectar because of their shape (for example, very long and narrow flowers) are simply punctured at the base near the nectaries, from which the birds sip the nectar.[1] Fruit is also part of the diet of some species. Their flight is fast and direct, thanks to their short wings.

The sunbirds have counterparts in two very distantly related groups: the hummingbirds of the Americas and the honeyeaters of Australia. The resemblances are due to convergent evolution brought about by a similar nectar-feeding lifestyle.[2] Some sunbird species can take nectar by hovering like a hummingbird, but they usually perch to feed.

Description edit

The spectacled spiderhunter is the largest species of sunbird

The family ranges in size from the 5-gram black-bellied sunbird to the spectacled spiderhunter, at about 45 grams. Like the hummingbirds, sunbirds are strongly sexually dimorphic, with the males usually brilliantly plumaged in iridescent colours.[3] In addition to this the tails of many species are longer in the males, and overall the males are larger. Sunbirds have long thin down-curved bills and brush-tipped tubular tongues, both adaptations to their nectar feeding.[4] The spiderhunters, of the genus Arachnothera, are distinct in appearance from the other members of the family. They are typically larger than the other sunbirds, with drab brown plumage that is the same for both sexes, and long, down-curved beaks.[3]

In metabolic behaviour similar to that of Andes hummingbirds,[5] species of sunbirds that live at high altitudes or latitudes will enter torpor while roosting at night, lowering their body temperature and entering a state of low activity and responsiveness.[3][6]

The moulting regimes of sunbirds are complex, being different in different species. Many species have no eclipse plumage, but do have juvenile plumage. Some species do show duller plumage in the off-season. In the dry months of June−August, male copper sunbirds and variable sunbirds lose much of their metallic sheen. In some instances different populations of the same species can display variation in different molting regimes.[3]

Distribution and habitat edit

Sunbirds are a tropical Old World family, with representatives in Africa, Asia and Australasia. In Africa they are found mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar but are also distributed in Egypt. In Asia the group occurs along the coasts of the Red Sea as far north as Israel, and along the Mediterranean as far north as Beirut, with a gap in their distribution across inland Syria and Iraq, and resuming in Iran, from where the group occurs continuously as far as southern China and Indonesia. In Australasia the family occurs in New Guinea, north eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands. They are generally not found on oceanic islands, with the exception of the Seychelles. The greatest variety of species is found in Africa, where the group probably arose. Most species are sedentary or short-distance seasonal migrants. Sunbirds occur over the entire family's range, whereas the spiderhunters are restricted to Asia.[3]

The sunbirds and spiderhunters occupy a wide range of habitats, with a majority of species being found in primary rainforest, but other habitats used by the family including disturbed secondary forest, open woodland, open scrub and savannah, coastal scrub and alpine forest. Some species have readily adapted to human modified landscapes such as plantations, gardens and agricultural land. Many species are able to occupy a wide range of habitats from sea level to 4900 m.[3]

Behaviour and ecology edit

Sunbird are active diurnal birds that generally occur in pairs or occasionally in small family groups. A few species occasionally gather in larger groups, and sunbird will join with other birds to mob potential predators, although sunbirds will also aggressively target other species, even if they are not predators, when defending their territories.[3]

Breeding edit

Female Seychelles sunbird at the nest with prey

Sunbirds that breed outside of the equatorial regions are mostly seasonal breeders, with the majority of them breeding in the wet season. This timing reflects the increased availability of insect prey for the growing young. Where species, like the buff-throated sunbird, breed in the dry season, it is thought to be associated with the flowering of favoured food plants. Species of sunbird in the equatorial areas breed throughout the year. They are generally monogamous and often territorial, although a few species of sunbirds have lekking behaviour.[7] The nests of sunbirds are generally purse-shaped, enclosed, suspended from thin branches with generous use of spiderweb. The nests of the spiderhunters are different, both from the sunbirds and in some cases from each other. Some, like the little spiderhunter, are small woven cups attached to the underside of large leaves; that of the yellow-eared spiderhunter is similarly attached but is a long tube. The nests of spiderhunters are inconspicuous, in contrast to those of the other sunbirds which are more visible. In most species the female alone constructs the nest. Up to four eggs are laid. The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs alone, although the male assists in rearing the nestlings.[8] In the spiderhunters both sexes help to incubate the eggs.[8] The nests of sunbirds and spiderhunters are often targeted by brood parasites such as cuckoos and honeyguides.

Pollination edit

Sunbird drinking nectar from typical bird-pollinated flower

As nectar is a primary food source for sunbirds, they are important pollinators in African ecosystems. Sunbird-pollinated flowers are typically long, tubular, and red-to-orange in colour, showing convergent evolution with many hummingbird-pollinated flowers in the Americas.[9] A key difference is that sunbirds cannot hover, so sunbird-pollinated flowers and inflorescences are typically sturdier than hummingbird-pollinated flowers, with an appropriate landing spot from which the bird can feed.[10][11] Sunbirds are critical pollinators for many iconic African plants, including proteas,[12] aloes,[13] Erica,[11] Erythrina coral trees,[9] and bird-of-paradise flowers.[14] Specialization on sunbirds vs other pollinators is thought to have contributed to plant speciation, including the exceptionally high floral diversity in southern Africa.[15][16]

Relationship with humans edit

Overall the family has fared better than many others, with only seven species considered to be threatened with extinction. Most species are fairly resistant to changes in habitat, and while attractive the family is not sought after by the cagebird trade, as they have what is considered an unpleasant song and are tricky to keep alive. Sunbirds are considered attractive birds and readily enter gardens where flowering plants are planted to attract them. There are a few negative interactions, for example the scarlet-chested sunbird is considered a pest in cocoa plantations as it spreads parasitic mistletoes.[3]

List of genera edit

The family contains 151 species divided into 16 genera:[17] For more detail, see list of sunbird species.

Image Genus Species
  Chalcoparia Cabanis, 1850
Deleornis Wolters, 1977
  Anthreptes Swainson, 1832
15 species:
  Hedydipna Cabanis, 1850
  Anabathmis Reichenow, 1905
  Dreptes Illiger, 1811
  Anthobaphes Cabanis, 1850
  Cyanomitra Reichenbach, 1853
  Chalcomitra Reichenbach, 1853
  Leptocoma Cabanis, 1850
  Nectarinia Illiger, 1811
  Drepanorhynchus Fischer & Reichenow, 1884
  Cinnyris Cuvier, 1816
63 species:
  Aethopyga Cabanis, 1851
22 species:
  Kurochkinegramma Kashain, 1978
  Arachnothera Temminck, 1826
13 species:

References edit

  1. ^ Geerts, S.; Pauw, A. (2009). "Hyper-specialization for long-billed bird pollination in a guild of South African plants: the Malachite Sunbird pollination syndrome". South African Journal of Botany. 75 (4): 699–706. doi:10.1016/j.sajb.2009.08.001.
  2. ^ Prinzinger, R.; Schafer T.; Schuchmann K.L. (March 1992). "Energy metabolism, respiratory quotient and breathing parameters in two convergent small bird species : the fork-tailed sunbird Aethopyga christinae (Nectariniidae) and the Chilean Hummingbird Sephanoides sephanoides (Trochilidae)". Journal of Thermal Biology. 17 (2): 71–79. doi:10.1016/0306-4565(92)90001-V.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Cheke, Robert; Mann, Clive (2008). "Family Nectariniidae (Sunbirds)". In del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Christie, David (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 13: Penduline-tits to Shrikes. Barcelona: Lynx Editions. pp. 196–243. ISBN 978-84-96553-45-3.
  4. ^ Paton, D. C.; Collins, B. G. (1989). "Bills and tongues of nectar-feeding birds: A review of morphology, function and performance, with intercontinental comparisons". Australian Journal of Ecology. 14 (4): 473–506. doi:10.1111/j.1442-9993.1989.tb01457.x. ISSN 1442-9993.
  5. ^ Altshuler, Douglas L.; Dudley, Robert (15 August 2002). "The ecological and evolutionary interface of hummingbird flight physiology". Journal of Experimental Biology. 205 (16): 2325–2336. doi:10.1242/jeb.205.16.2325. PMID 12124359 – via
  6. ^ Downs, Colleen; Mark Brown (January 2002). "Nocturnal Heterothermy And Torpor In The Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa)". Auk. 119 (1): 251–260. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2002)119[0251:NHATIT]2.0.CO;2. S2CID 85925616.
  7. ^ Elliott, Andrew (2008). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-84-96553-45-3.
  8. ^ a b Lindsey, Terence (1991). Forshaw, Joseph (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. p. 207. ISBN 978-1-85391-186-6.
  9. ^ a b Bruneau, Anne (1997). "Evolution and homology of bird pollination syndromes in Erythrina (Leguminosae)". American Journal of Botany. 84 (1): 54–71. doi:10.2307/2445883. ISSN 1537-2197. JSTOR 2445883.
  10. ^ Barrett, Spencer C. H.; Cole, William W.; Anderson, Bruce (May 2005). "Botany: Specialized bird perch aids cross-pollination". Nature. 435 (7038): 41–42. Bibcode:2005Natur.435...41A. doi:10.1038/435041a. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 15875009. S2CID 25020534.
  11. ^ a b Siegfried, W. R.; Rebelo, A. G.; Prŷs-Jones, R. P.; Prys-Jones, R. P. (1985). "Stem Thickness of Erica Plants in Relation to Avian Pollination". Oikos. 45 (1): 153. Bibcode:1985Oikos..45..153S. doi:10.2307/3565234. JSTOR 3565234.
  12. ^ Hargreaves, Anna L.; Johnson, Steven D.; Nol, Erica (2004). "Do floral syndromes predict specialization in plant pollination systems? An experimental test in an "ornithophilous" African Protea". Oecologia. 140 (2): 295–301. Bibcode:2004Oecol.140..295H. doi:10.1007/s00442-004-1495-5. ISSN 1432-1939. PMID 15168105. S2CID 24426457.
  13. ^ Ratsirarson, J (1995). "Pollination ecology of Aloe divaricata, Berger (Liliaceae): an endemic plant species of south-west Madagascar". South African Journal of Botany. 61 (5): 249–252. doi:10.1016/S0254-6299(15)30531-7.
  14. ^ Frost, S. K.; Frost, P. G. H. (1981). "Sunbird pollination of Strelitzia nicolai". Oecologia. 49 (3): 379–384. Bibcode:1981Oecol..49..379F. doi:10.1007/BF00347603. ISSN 0029-8549. PMID 28310001. S2CID 11735363.
  15. ^ Valente, Luis M.; Manning, John C.; Goldblatt, Peter; Vargas, Pablo (2012-07-01). "Did Pollination Shifts Drive Diversification in Southern African Gladiolus? Evaluating the Model of Pollinator-Driven Speciation". The American Naturalist. 180 (1): 83–98. doi:10.1086/666003. ISSN 0003-0147. PMID 22673653. S2CID 5989519.
  16. ^ Johnson Steven D. (2010-02-12). "The pollination niche and its role in the diversification and maintenance of the southern African flora". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 365 (1539): 499–516. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0243. PMC 2838267. PMID 20047876.
  17. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David; Rasmussen, Pamela, eds. (December 2023). "Dippers, leafbirds, flowerpeckers, sunbirds". IOC World Bird List Version 14.1. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 22 January 2024.

External links edit