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What is a Sunbird?

By S. Ashraf
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A sunbird is a very small forest bird that lives in the tropical areas of the South Pacific, Asia and Africa. There are about 100 species of sunbirds, all belonging to the Nectariniidae family, and they vary in size from 3.5-8.5 inches (about 9-22 cm). Although there are many species, all sunbirds share some characteristics. All species have a long slender bill that curves downward, a tongue that is longer than the bill and wings that are stubby and rounded. Interestingly, the tongue is shaped something like a tube and helps the sunbird draw nectar out of flowers.

The most striking physical characteristic of the sunbird is its color. During breeding season, the males of most sunbird species are brilliantly colored in a combination of shimmering metallic purple, black, blue and green, along with patches of red, orange and yellow. After breeding season ends, the males will molt and take on a somewhat plainer appearance. Females look very much alike regardless of the species. All, however, lack the iridescence of the male and have a duller color that is mostly in shades of yellow, brown or gray.

Geographically, the sunbird family is widely found from Africa through Asia and areas of the South Pacific. The African continent has the greatest variety of sunbirds; they are extensively distributed in the sub-Saharan region, Madagascar and Egypt. In Asia, the sunbird is found around the Red Sea, as far north as Israel and then from Iran through Indonesia and southern China. Sunbirds also live in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and northeastern Australia. Scientists generally think the sunbird originated in Africa and slowly migrated eastward.

For habitat, sunbirds usually prefer tropical rainforests in either lowland or mountainous areas. These birds can also be found, however, on the open woodlands of savannas, in mangrove regions and in forests bordering rivers in arid country. Some species, such as the Palestine sunbird, even inhabit the vegetation in desert areas. These are not migratory birds, but they might change feeding grounds somewhat when they are not in the breeding season. Their diet consists mostly of nectar from small flowers, but they will also feed on small insects, fruit and spiders.

During breeding season, sunbirds form a monogamous pair for mating. Both sexes care for the hatchlings, but only the female constructs the nest and incubates the eggs. Most often, sunbirds build nests that are purse-like in shape and are suspended from the branch of a small tree. The life expectancy of a sunbird is about seven years.

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