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Beautiful Sunbird (Cinnyris pulchellus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature


  • Two subspecies of Cinnyris pulchellus
    • C. p. pulchellus (Linnaeus 1766) (Gill et al. 2016)
    • C. p. melanogastrus (G.A. Fischer and A. Reichenow 1884) (Gill et al. 2016)
    • Little geographic overlap between subspecies, except during times of migration and dispersal (Cheke et al. 2001)

Nomenclature (Lederer and Burr 2014, except as noted)

  • Genus: Cinnyris (SIN-ni-ris)
    • From the Greek Hesychius of Alexandria, who called some unknown bird kinnuris
    • By far, the largest of 16 sunbird genera (143 species across all sunbird genera) (Gill et al. 2016)
      • 54 species recognized (as of June 2016) (Gill et al. 2016) 
      • Previously subsumed in genus Nectarinia (Cheke and Mann 2008)
    • Characteristics
      • Mostly medium-sized sunbirds
      • Fine, decurved bills; short or medium length (Cheke et al. 2001; Cheke and Mann 2008)
      • Distinct tongue
      • Most brightly colored (Cheke and Mann 2008)
        • Males with iridescent plumage, especially on upperparts (Cheke et al. 2001)
        • May look dark until illuminated by sunlight (Elphick 2014)
      • Males of some species with pectoral tufts for displaying (Cheke and Mann 2008)
      • Females plain or with some iridescent plumage (Cheke et al. 2001; Cheke and Mann 2008)
    • Geographic range
      • Most widespread sunbird genus (Cheke and Mann 2008)
      • Africa, Madagascar, Indian Ocean islands, the Middle East, tropical Asia, the New Guinea region and Australia (Cheke and Mann 2008)
  • Species: pulchellus
    • Latin, “beautiful little”

Synonyms (Mackworth-Praed and Grant 1973; Cheke and Mann 2008)

  • Nectarinia pulchella
  • Certhia pulchella (Linnaeus 1766)

Common names (Cheke and Mann 2008)

  • Beautiful Sunbird, Beautiful Long-tailed Sunbird (English)
  • Souimanga à longue queue (French)
  • Elfennektarvogel (German)
  • Suimanga Colilargo (Spanish)
  • Common names in more languages

Other vernacular names referring to sunbirds

  • Few local names specific to particular sunbird species
    • Likely because of limited cultural-economic importance (Skead 1967)
  • Tuyr al-annaba (Arabic) (Fry et al. 2000; Cheke et al. 2001)
    • Means Tapinanthus bird, referring to the sunbird’s affinity for mistletoes (Tapinanthus spp.)
  • Suikerbekkies (Afrikaans) (“little sugar-beaks”) (Skead 1967)
  • Southern Africa (regional) (Skead 1967)
    • Honey-sucker
    • Senwabolpi, selopi (“nectar drinker”)
    • Tala, taletale (“the green-green one”)
    • Xichacha or Xichache
  • Incuncu, incwincwi (Zulu language of Natal) (Skead 1967)
  • Inchunchu, incuncu (Xhosa; relevant to southern Africa sunbirds) (Skead 1967)
    • Some sunbird species are given more specific local names
  • Suikervogel (Dutch) (Skead 1967)
  • Nektarvogels (German) (Skead 1967)

Evolutionary History

Closest known relatives

  • Copper Sunbird, Cinnyris cupreus (Cheke and Mann 2008)

Other close relatives (Johansson et al. 2008, and as noted)

  • Flowerpeckers, Dicaeidae (Winkler et al. 2015)
    • Most likely sister taxon
    • Clade formed by the sunbirds and flowerpeckers is one of the older lineages within Passeroidea (Ericson and Johansson 2003; Winkler et al. 2015)
  • Spiderhunters, Arachnothera (Nectariniidae, about 10 species) (Cheke and Mann 2008)
  • Evolutionary origin of sunbirds may be Asia (Cheke and Mann 2008)
  • Part of the radiation of oscine (singing) passerine birds (Winkler et al. 2015)

Similar birds (Elphick 2014; Winkler et al. 2015)

  • New World hummingbirds (Trochilidae)
    • Similar lifestyle and ecological niche
    • Only distantly related
  • Honeycreepers (Thraupidae and Fringillidae)
  • Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae)
  • Asities (Philepittidae)

What scientists use to determine evolutionary relationships in sunbirds (Cheke and Mann 2008)

  • Anatomical and morphological traits
  • Vocalizations
  • Breeding behaviors
  • Molecular/genetic analyses

Cultural History

This section provides general sunbird information, except as noted.


  • European exploration of Africa
    • Few references in people’s travel accounts (Skead 1967)
    • 1810-1811: Naturalist W.J. Burchell writes about seeing sunbirds in South Africa (Skead 1967)
    • 1853: Soldiers in the Kaffir Wars observe sunbirds (Skead 1967)
      • Mention sunbirds in letters
      • Attempt to shoot for specimen collection

African culture and folklore

  • Xhosa peoples
    • Used references to sunbirds to communicate respect towards chief or men of high standing (Skead 1967)
    • Could also imply someone as being a gossip or unable to keep secrets (Skead 1967)
      • 'Unchunchu ngolwimi': Related to a proverb meaning ‘he has a sunbird’s tongue’
      • Possibly derived from the way sunbirds fly from flower-to-flower, putting their bills into the flowers' 'ears,' as if passing secrets from ear-to-ear


  • Field guides and monographs
    • Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World (Robert A. Cheke, Clive F. Mann, and Richard Allen 2001)
    • A Monograph of the Nectariniidae, or Family of Sunbirds (Captain George Ernest Shelley 1876-1880)
  • Poetry
  • Children’s literature
    • Sunbirds (Hilary Atkinson and Paula Raubenheimer 2013)
    • The Sunbird Mystery (Janet Olearski and Evie Safarewicz 1998)
  • Popular fiction titles inspired by sunbirds
    • Wilbur Smith novels
    • Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (Christie Watson 2011)


  • Artists of sunbird monographs
    • John Gould (1804-1881) (Jackson 1975; Gould 1990)
      • English ornithologist
      • Significant figure in 19th century bird art
      • His wife, Elizabeth Gould
        • Illustrated hundreds of birds for her husband’s works
        • Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Aethopyga gouldiae, is named after her
    • John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912) (Jackson 1975)
  • Bird taxidermy as art
    • Mounted in glass domes, cases, or shadow boxes during the Victorian era (Skead 1967)
      • Displayed in drawing rooms, overseas and in Africa
        • Today, sold as antiques
      • Sunbirds, hummingbirds, orioles, and other birds with iridescent plumage were most fashionable and sought after
      • Posed on branches
  • Stained glass
    • Depiction of St. Francis with sunbirds (Skead 1967)
      • Window in Christ Church Kenilworth (South Africa)
      • Artist: Anthony Griffin
  • Postage stamps of Beautiful Sunbird
  • Photography and paintings


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Passeriformes

Suborder: Oscines

Family: Nectariniidae (Vigors 1825)

Genus: Cinnyris (Cuvier 1816)

Species: Cinnyris pulchellus - Beautiful Sunbird

Subspecies: C. p. melanogastrus (Fischer and Reichenow 1884)
Subspecies: C. p. pulchellus (Linnaeus 1766)


Cheke and Mann (2008)

Orrell T. (custodian). 2016. ITIS Global: The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (version Sep 2015). In: Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life, 25th March 2016 (Roskov Y., Abucay L., Orrell T., Nicolson D., Kunze T., Flann C., Bailly N., Kirk P., Bourgoin T., DeWalt R.E., Decock W., De Wever A., eds). Digital resource at Species 2000: Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands. ISSN 2405-8858.

Sunbirds in Art

painting of Green-headed Sunbirds

Green-headed Snit by Kim Diment.

Paintings can depict animal behavior that is difficult to represent in other art forms, such as film and photography. This painting shows social interactions among sunbirds, an aspect of their biology that is rarely documented. 

Image credit: © Kim Diment. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the artist.


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