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Carmine Bee-eaters (Merops nubicus & M. nubicoides) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle


  • Active during the day
    • Emerge from nest holes after dawn, perch nearby, preen, then fly together to reach feeding areas
    • On sunny days, sun-baths common
    • Water and dust-bathing activities help rid birds of ectoparasites
    • In late afternoon during breeding season, eat sand, snail-shell and other calcium-rich items

Social Structure

Gregarious (from Fry 1984; Fry 2001 unless otherwise noted)

  • Live in huge breeding colonies
    • Form smaller flocks outside the breeding season
      • Related birds often roost side-by-side, touching each other on a branch
    • Colonies often associated with those of White-fronted Bee-eaters
    • Colonies often used for numerous breeding cycles
      • In Zimbabwe, one colony on the Umguza River was used as a breeding site for at least 80 years
  • Size of breeding colonies
    • Size dependent on surrounding habitat
      • Colonies in cliffs typically contain 100-1,000 nests
      • Colonies on flat ground may have up to 10,000 nests
    • In Zimbabwe, one colony contained 1,500 birds
  • Colonial behavior and cooperative breeding not linked in Carmine Bee-eaters (Emlen 1990) (Elston et al 2007)
    • Carmine Bee-eaters may not use nest-helpers as do White-fronted Bee-eaters

Territory/Range Size

Range widely due to migratory habits

  • Birds migrate to higher latitudes for nesting, lower latitudes for wintering (Fry 1984)

Territorial Behavior

Non territorial, typically

  • May defend nest and foraging area from non-related birds


Typically non-aggressive

  • Most often friendly when foraging with group members
    • React aggressively toward non-clan bird intrudes
      • May be defense of clan's foraging territory
  • Clan members often quarrel at roost and colony sites
  • Aggressive behaviors
    • Birds grapple with beaks, twirl to ground or onto water's surface
    • Males may guard their female partner in the breeding season (but both sexes may mate with others, given the chance)

Nest defense

  • Breeding pairs and helpers defend from non-group members (del Hoyo et al 2001)
    • Birds may lunge at others in proximity, at entrance to nearby nest tunnels


Visual displays (from Fry 1984, 1992, 2001)

  • Threat display
    • A threat to neighboring birds perched nearby
    • Aggressor assumes a hunched posture, body almost horizontal, crown feathers flat, throat feathers fluffed
  • Begging
    • Female may use juvenile begging posture for insect given by male during courting

Vocalization (from Fry 1984, 1992, 2001)

  • 3 common contact calls
    • Other calls
      • Greeting, appeasement, threat, and predator alarm calls
      • Flight calls
      • Courtship specific vocalizations also produced
      • Young produce distinctive sounds when feeding
  • Typical bee-eater call
    • Sound has a rolling, liquid quality
    • Voice described as "un-bee-eater-like"
  • Flight call
    • A Short, bass, throaty "klunk", "chung","tunk" or "terk"
  • Alarm call
    • A loud, "rik-rik-rik-rak, rak-rik-rak-rik" and harsh "tirriktirrik-tirrik"
  • Click here for Northern Carmine Bee-Eater audio; provided by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library


Terrestrial locomotion

  • Feet shuffle along the ground
    • Feet barely leave the ground
    • Feet face slightly inwards - "pigeon-toed"
  • Move quickly through burrows
    • Can move quickly on its short legs, covering 1-2 m (10-20 ft.) in a few seconds

Aerial locomotion

  • Strong, swift flight
    • Almost as aerial as the swallows (Hirundinidae)
    • Capable of rapid twists and turns in the air
    • Glide skillfully to drink over water
    • Plunge into water to bathe

Other movements and body positions

  • Perching
    • When perching, three forward facing toes do not spread; two outer toes are partly fused
  • Digs in soil with feet
    • Uses both legs to push soil backwards in a bicycling motion when excavating a burrow

Dispersal & Migration

Females disperse

  • Females leave birth group to join the family of the male (patrilocal) for breeding


  • Complex three-part migration
    • Travel seasonally between higher and lower latitudes
    • Migration may follow migratory locusts

Interspecies Interactions

Animal associates

  • Avian associates
    • Often found with smaller Red-throated Bee-eaters
    • Often seen on ostriches and bustards
    • May perch on storks, herons, egrets, ibises, cranes, and secretary birds
  • Mammalian associates
    • Attracted to herds of ungulates
      • Northern Carmine Bee-eaters (and not Southern Carmine Bee-eaters) watch for flushed insects from the backs of large ground birds and passing mammals (wild and domestic)
        • Often seen with sheep and goats
        • May perch on cattle, camels, donkeys, zebra, wart hogs, and antelopes
        • Known to fly alongside galloping Besia oryx

Attracted to edges of fires where insects are disturbed

Nesting colonies are tourist attractions (Fry et al. 2018)

Carmine Bee-eater in Flight

Southern carmine bee-eater in flight

Southern Carmine Bee-eater in flight (Merops nubicoides).

Photographed at Mapungubwe National Park (Limpopo, South Africa).

Image credit: © Martin Heigan from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

del Hoyo et al (2001)
Elston et al (2007)
Emlen (1990)
Fry (1984, 2001)

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