Sunbirds are the Hummingbirds of Africa

Scarlet-chested sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 January 2024: Day 13, Livingstone, Zambia — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

Africa has no hummingbirds (Trochilidae) but they have a family of nectar-feeding birds with many of the same characteristics: Sunbirds (Nectariniidae). Though the two families are unrelated they’re an example of convergent evolution, equipped with the same tools and habits.

The similarities between hummingbirds and sunbirds are striking. Both have:

  • Brilliantly colored males, often iridescent
  • Sexually dimorphic females
  • Long curved bills for collecting nectar
  • Short wings and fast, direct flight
  • Feed primarily on nectar
  • Feed insects and spiders to their young
  • Are important flower pollinators
  • Prefer red or orange flowers that are long and tubular,
  • Can enter torpor when it’s cold.

Their differences are also interesting:

Hummingbirds vs. Sunbirds

New World onlyOld World: Africa, Asia, Australasia
Range in size from 1.59 g to 20 gramsRange in size from 5 g to 45 grams
Hover and have tiny feetPerch with normal feet
Don't hang out with familyUsually found in pairs; sometimes in family or larger groups
Some make long migrationsSedentary or short-distance migrations
Hummingbird beaks can't pierce flowers. That's the job of flowerpiercers.Sunbirds pierce flowers if the nectar is too hard to reach.

On our tour we encountered three species of sunbirds: scarlet-chested sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis), amethyst sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina) and white-bellied sunbird (Cinnyris talatala).

The scarlet-chested is very iridescent and, amazingly, is considered a pest in cocoa plantations because it spreads parasitic mistletoes according to Wikipedia.

Video embedded from JRothe on YouTube

The amethyst sunbird has fewer iridescent spots …

Amethyst sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… but an interesting voice.

video embedded from Lynette Rudman on YouTube

The white-bellied sunbird was a bonus. I did not expect to see him.

White-bellied sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Beautiful as sunbirds are, I’m glad we have hummingbirds instead.

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