Humming to the Wrong Tune – Mistaken Identities #3

June 1, 2009 at 11:57 am | Posted in itchy mouth | 3 Comments
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Visit any sizable park or nature reserve in Singapore and chances are you will be able to see some brightly coloured little birds zipping about, collecting nectars from flower to flower. These are the Sunbirds (太阳鸟). These tiny birds’ flight is fast and direct but occasionally, they can be seen hovering briefly over flowers. The Sunbirds are another group of native wildlife that have suffered from frequent misidentification. Indeed, the ability to hover whilst feeding from the flower is a distinctive behaviour of another more well-known family of birds not found in our island, the Hummingbirds (蜂鸟).

A male Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarina jugularis) (11 cm) feeding

Itchyfingers think a lot of people mistake the Sunbirds for Hummingbirds due to a couple of reasons:

1. Sunbirds, like the Hummingbirds, are very small birds that feed almost exclusively on nectar (the sunbirds do take insects and arthropods when feeding their nestlings). While Sunbirds are small birds with an average size of 10 -13 cm, they are considerably larger compared to the average Hummingbirds. In fact, the smallest bird in the world, the Bee Hummingbird is roughly 6 cm in length and a mere 1.6 grams in weight!

A male Copper-throated Sunbird (Nectarina calcostetha) (14 cm) bringing
an insect to feed its young

2. Both birds are colourful, with many species that are brightly iridescent. Males are usually more attractively coloured than females for both the Hummingbirds and Sunbirds.

The male Copper-throated Sunbird may appear all black in poor light, but they
actually have metallic green cap; copper throat and upper breast; dark purple
lower breast and belly

In contrast, the female Copper-throated sunbird has a greyish head, dark
olive upperparts, throat and greyish under tail coverts; breast and belly
greenish yellow; tail black with bold white tips

The male Plain-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis), also known as
the Brown-throated Sunbird (14 cm), has brown throat and metallic blue
shoulder patch

The female Plain-throated Sunbird in her duller coat….life’s unfair isn’t it?

3. They both have long and slim bills adapted for collecting nectar from flowers. Indeed, the similarities in Sunbird and Hummingbird morphology (form and shape of the animal) can be explained by evolution convergent, whereby two unrelated groups of animals acquire similar physical trait(s) due to them occupying similar ecological niches.

Hmmm…that’s about it…though there are in fact more differences between the two families of bird than similarities.

Hummingbirds are strictly New World species and hence occur naturally in the Americas. Sunbirds however are Old World birds found mainly in Asia and Africa. Sunbirds are passerine (or the so called perching birds) just like our Mynas, Sparrows and Crows, while Hummingbirds are non-passerine birds more closely related to Swifts.

Though both have long bills, the Hummingbirds have much longer bills in relation to their body size. Some of them have specialised bills adapted to collect nectars only from certain type of flowers. While Sunbirds can sometimes be seen hovering when feeding on nectar, they do not do this all the time. Instead, most of the time they will perch on branches while feeding. Hummingbirds hover in mid-air almost all the time while feeding. They do this by rapidly flapping their wings (12-90 times per second depending on the species). They can also fly backwards, and are the only group of birds able to do so. Their English name derives from the characteristic hum made by their rapid wing beats. They can fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/h; 34 mph).

The male Plain-throated Sunbird perching upside down

Hummingbirds build a cup-shaped nest like many birds do. The Sunbirds’ nests are unmistakable hanging pouches.

All in all, Hummingbirds are just better known to the general public as they are always featured in books, documentaries and advertisements etc. Since when did you see a Sunbird on tv commercial? :p

Itchtyfingers remember a few years back, our very own Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja) was voted to be one of the likely candidates to be selected as Singapore’s national bird. This was by virtue of the fact that the male of this species was so strikingly handsome but it was also a defiant but apt analogy for Singapore, a gutsy “little red dot”.

The male Crimson Sunbird (11 cm)

Also see related posts:
> Slow but Steady – World Turtle Day
Changing Colours – Mistaken Identities #2
Living in Cold Blood – Mistaken Identities #1



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  1. beautiful beautiful shots.

  2. amazing shots.. i just had a sunbird couple visit me in my balcony and i was confusing them with hummingbird… they look so similar to the ones in your pics..wish i could take pictures too but then i am not yet skilled to take such clear and pretty pics 😦

    • Hi Tara,

      Thanks for visiting Itchyfingers! 🙂

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