Sunbirds – the jewels of SA birds
Sunbirds can rightly be called the jewels among South African birds. Of a total of 105 species in the world, 70 occur in Africa, with 20 in South Africa.
Nectarinia violacea (Afrikaans: Oranjeborssuikerbekkie)
Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Nectarinia chalybea (Afrikaans: Klein-rooiborssuikerbekkie)
Nectarinia famosa (Afrikaans: Jangroentjie)
Sunbirds are mostly small birds with long thin downcurved bills which are very well adapted for extracting nectar from flowers. They have long tongues, which can protrude past the tip of their beaks. The tongue can fold into a tube which can produce a sucking action to collect the nectar.
It was once suggested by a famous ornithologist that sunbirds have no future, as they were too specialized and at times of serious weather upsets like prolonged droughts, they would not be able to survive. Nothing can be further from the truth. I would rather call them experts in different fields. Nectar collecting is only one. They are excellent insect catchers and can take insects like moths, flies, midgets, etc. in flight. They also dig out insects from the crevices in the bark of trees, and eat many spiders as well.
Sunbirds also eat a lot of fruit and berries. The young birds are fed entirely on insects and berries, such as pigeonwood and berries on shrubs. The parents come back to the nests with rows of berries in their beaks, neatly stacked together like a string of beads along the whole length of the beak.
Female sunbirds sadly all have very drab colouring. The males have all the colour, iridescent colour that shines in sunlight, and changes all the time as the angle of the light changes when the birds move around. Male sunbirds are a bird photographer's nightmare. When you focus on the bird and the iridescence shows, you press the button, but it's already too late -- when your film comes back the bird has gone black. When you press the button by mistake when the colour is gone the film comes back with all the colours showing! No artist or photographer has probably ever got the perfect sunbird picture with all the shades of blue, red, yellow and purple showing together.
The South Western Cape has three common to very common species, with occasional visits from other kinds. The three main species are the Southern (formerly Lesser) Double-Collared, the Orange-breasted Sunbird and the biggest of the sunbirds, the Malachite (Jan Groentjie). The only other sunbird fairly regularly seen, is the Greater Double-Collared Sunbird.
The Southern Double and the Malachite are the main garden birds; the Orange-breasted prefers the fynbos when Ericas are plentiful, but they will also occasionally visit your garden. They are particularly fond of Haleria lucida trees, so always keep a space for one of them in your garden. The favourite plant of the other two is Leonotis leonaris (wilde dagga). A few of these plants in your garden will always bring sunbirds in numbers.
The nests of all the sunbirds are ball-shaped, with the entrance on or near the top with a little veranda over it. They will nest in any creeper or suitable shrub, and the Malachite may sometimes nest quite high up in a tree. On the farm we had a branch of a bay tree hanging in the scullery to dry for use in cooking. Before it was ready for use, a Malachite Sunbird built a nest in it. The scullery door was left open night and day and the birds successfully reared two chicks.
The name sunbird may give the impression that they operate during sunlight hours only, but sit on your stoep on a stormy winter's day, with the rain pouring down, when other birds would all have gone to seek some sort of shelter, and you will be surprised to see the little sunbird as active as ever, rain or no rain. You can have a lot of enjoyment from them if you put up a feeder for juice – glucose water is the best, as sugar water makes their beaks sticky.
Sunbirds do no harm at all to anyone, they don't damage anything, and they are essential to plants as pollinating agents, for which some plants have specially adapted their flowers. So please look after our sunbirds.
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