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Beautiful Sunbird (Cinnyris pulchellus) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding

Diet

Nectar (Cheke et al. 2001; Cheke and Mann 2008, except as noted)

  • Small flowers are most important food source
  • Visit flowers of more than 20 plant genera (Fry et al. 2000; Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2014)
    • Acacia (Leguminosae)
    • Aloe (Liliaceae) (see Visiting Flowers, right)
    • Jacaranda (Bignoniaceae)
    • Lantana (Verbenaceae)
    • Tapinanthus (Loranthaceae)
  • Unable to store nectar [sunbirds, general]
    • No crop below esophagus (unlike hummingbirds)
    • Need to feed frequently

Arthropods (insects and spiders)

  • Flies, butterflies, and their larvae (Elphick 2014)
  • Insects attracted to the jujube tree, Ziziphus mauritiana (Cheke et al. 2001)
  • Termites (frequency in diet unclear) (Dial and Vaughan 1987)
  • Small spiders (Araneae) (Cheke et al. 2001; Cheke and Mann 2008)

Fruits and berries

  • Fleshy parts taken occasionally (Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett 2014; Elphick 2014; Winkler et al. 2015)
    • E.g., neem, Azadirachta indica

Feeding

Foraging

  • Singly; occasionally in small groups (Cheke and Mann 2008)
  • Spend much of their day searching for blooming plants (Elphick 2014)
    • Make regular circuits of plants within their territories
  • In and around foliage at edges of trees (Fry et al. 2000; Cheke and Mann 2008)
    • Often low down, within 1 m of the ground
    • Forest edges and clearings may be more productive in terms of flowering plants
      • More reliable source of nectar or invertebrates
  • Steady energy intake important to meet metabolic needs (Purchase et al. 2013)
  • Where sunbird species overlap, some may reduce competition with each other by feeding at different plants (Riegert et al. 2011)

Access to nectar (Cheke and Mann 2008; Elphick 2014; except as noted)

  • Approach to flowers
  • Probe downwards or sideways, inserting bill into flower
  • Forage at open and closed flowers
    • Use bill to pry petals apart, tear petals, or pierce the base of flower to access nectar (“nectar-robbing”)
      • See Stealing Nectar, right
    • At times, may appear to put entire head inside flower
  • Extract nectar by sucking with their tubular tongue (hummingbirds lick nectar)
    • Tongue’s movement inside the mouth creates a slight vacuum
    • Draws nectar up the tongue
  • Often wipe bill on branch or twig afterwards [sunbirds, general]
  • Factors influencing food intake
    • Nectar viscosity and sugar concentration [White-bellied Sunbird] (Köhler et al. 2008; Köhler et al. 2010)
    • Energy intake during previous meal [White-bellied Sunbird] (Bailey and Nicolson 2016)

Catching insects and spiders

  • Glean from flowers or leaves, sometimes while hovering (Cheke and Mann 2008; Elphick 2014)
  • ‘Hawking’ them in the air (Elphick 2014)
  • Snatch from spiders’ webs (Elphick 2014)
  • From windows or eaves of houses (Cheke and Mann 2008)

Relationship with Plants

Sunbirds as pollinators

  • Become dusted with pollen when insert head into flowers [sunbirds, general] (Cheke and Mann 2008)
    • Carry pollen from flower-to-flower
    • Deposit pollen on the recipient plant’s stigma
    • Fertilize the plant
  • However, limited evidence for highly specialized co-evolution between particular species of sunbirds and particular flowering plants [sunbirds, general] (Cheke and Mann 2008; Janeček et al. 2015)
  • Some sunbird species pollinate plants of economic importance [sunbirds, general] (Cheke and Mann 2008)
  • Also contribute to spread of parasitic plants
    • Parasitic mistletoes [sunbirds, general] (Cheke and Mann 2008)
    • Root parasites, e.g., Cytinus [sunbirds, general] (Hobbhahn and Johnson 2015)
    • Some of these sunbird species regarded as pests (Cheke and Mann 2008)

Visiting Flowers

Beautiful Sunbird on Aloe Plant

A Beautiful Sunbird, Cinnyris pulchellus, perched on the stem of an aloe plant.

Both nectar and arthropods are important parts of a sunbird's diet.

Image credit: © Philippe Boissel at Flickr. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the artist.

Image details: Taken 07 February 2012 in Senegal.

Stealing Nectar

Beautiful Sunbird Nectar robbing

A Beautiful Sunbird, Cinnyris pulchellus, pierces the base of a flower using its sharp, pointed bill.

A "nectar robbing" sunbird bypasses the usual "agreement" between flower and pollinator by "stealing" nectar from the base of the flower without touching the pollination structures.

Image credit: © Isidro Vila Verde at Flickr. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the artist.

Image details: 01 August 2007, Gambia.

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