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
  • Preferred flowers are red or orange, long and tubular
  • Those that live where it’s cold can enter torpor.

Their differences are also interesting:

Hummingbirds vs. Sunbirds

Hummingbirds Sunbirds
New World only Old World: Africa, Asia, Australasia
Range in size from 1.59 g to 20 grams Range in size from 5 g to 45 grams
Hover and have tiny feet Perch with normal feet
Don’t hang out with family Usually found in pairs; sometimes in family or larger groups
Some make long migrations Sedentary 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’ll encounter two species of sunbirds: the scarlet-chested sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis) and the amethyst sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina).

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

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

Autor Kate St. John

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