Colours of Wildlife: Marico Sunbird

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Marico Sunbird

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Marico Sunbird by Willem

I've something very special for you today – one of my all-time favourite birdies, a Marico Sunbird, Nectarinia mariquensis! It is sometimes classified in the genus Cinnyris. It is named for the Great Marico region of South Africa. The Marico River is a tributary of the Limpopo River, the great river forming the northern border of the country. The Great Marico is still a wild bushveld region abounding in wildlife. But this sunbird is by far not restricted to the Great Marico – it occurs all over the northern quarter of South Africa, and from there, into our neighbour countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, and from there northward into East Africa as far as Ethiopia! It's actually one of the most widespread bird species on the continent.

Glorious Shimmering Birds

So, what are sunbirds? They're tiny birds in their own family, the Nectariniidae. This family occurs in southern Asia, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where they're most diverse. South Africa is blessed with many species. They are specially adapted for feeding on nectar, and most species have long, recurved bills with which they can probe deep into flowers. They have long tongues, rolled into a tube and with forked tips. They supplement their diet by catching very small insects and spiders, holding them firm with tiny, tooth-like serrations in the tips of their bills. A few species called spider-hunters indeed feed mainly on spiders. Sunbirds will also feed on soft, ripe fruit, puncturing the skin and lapping up the juice.

Sunbirds are in ways reminiscent of the hummingbirds of the New World. But they're not at all closely related. Hummingbirds belong to their own order, the Trochiliformes, which is perhaps closest related to swifts, while sunbirds form just one family in the huge songbird order, the Passeriformes. Unlike hummingbirds, sunbirds have no adaptations for hovering flight. They do sometimes hover in the air in front of a flower to drink its nectar, but this is with a much more inexpert, fluttering flight than that of the hummingbirds. Most of the time, a sunbird will instead perch on the flower or on the twig holding the flower while they're drinking.

Sunbirds also remember hummingbirds in their beauty! The males of most species are brightly coloured, in reds, yellows and shimmering blues, greens and purples. I've tried to capture this shimmering colour in my painting, but of course it's not the same as seeing it in a living, moving bird. This shimmering, properly called iridescence, is created by precisely-arranged layers of pigments and structural components in the feathers. Depending on at which angles sunlight hits the feathers, different colours are reflected. In the Marico Sunbird, the entire head and back of the bird shimmers. In poor light, it appears mostly black, but in good sunlight, the feathers shimmer in bronze, turquoise and bright green. The sunbird also has a somewhat less shimmering band of deep red on its chest, bordered by a narrow purple band where it joins the green of the neck. Its belly, wings and tail are velvet black.

Reaching a length of 14 cm/5.5", this is one of the larger sunbirds, but still quite a small bird. Yet, Marico sunbirds are bold and active. They defend their territories and mates very aggressively. Territories are based on flowering trees – especially thorn trees – and shrubs, herbs and succulents like aloes, with suitable tubular flowers. It is important that a territory contains such flowers pretty much year-round. Male sunbirds will perch prominently, singing loudly, and watching out for other sunbirds or anything else which might be intruding on their territory. The song is a rapid, complex jumble of chirps, squeaks and warbles. The male becomes even more bold and aggressive when he and the female are constructing their nests.

Female Marico sunbirds are drab, greyish brown with streaky breasts. The female builds the nest alone. It is an exquisite, tiny bag 'woven' with fine plant material and spider web; the outside is camouflaged with bits of bark, seeds or other plant materials. It is built hanging down from a twig, with a small entrance hole. The female typically lays two eggs, which hatch after about two weeks. The chicks are fed on insects. Sometimes small Klaas' cuckoos will lay their eggs in their nests; if the sunbirds don't cotton on to this, they will happily raise the much larger cuckoo chick as their own.

Indeed, Marico sunbirds, aside from their nectar-drinking prowess, are formidable hunters of insects like flying termites, small flies, wasps, moths and caterpillars. They catch them mostly on the wing – they are excellent at rapid twisting manoeuvres. They typically hunt from a perch, like flycatchers, returning to the perch to feed. They sometimes poke around foliage with their bills for insects trying to hide; they will even sometimes, parrot-like, hang upside down to inspect the undersides of leaves.

This and other sunbird species can sometimes pose a strange identification puzzle to inexperienced birdwatchers! While feeding, they often poke their heads quite deep into flowers; the sticky pollen of aloe flowers, especially, then clings to their heads and faces, giving them an orange tint hardly ever shown in bird identification guides!

Of course, this sticky pollen is for the benefit of the plant. The plant in essence rewards the sunbird by giving it nectar in exchange for taking the pollen, which then ends up hopefully in the flowers of a different individual of the same plant species, cross-pollinating them. Sunbirds are thus important for the ecology, ensuring the presence of many flowering species in the otherwise drab savannah. Even so, most savannah and dry bushland regions have a dearth of flowers over the wintertime – except for aloes! Copiously flowering species like the mountain aloe are thus vital for tiding these and other nectar-drinkers over the winter. But their ability to catch insects also favours them.

The Marico sunbird is a delightful visitor to suburban gardens in northern South Africa. Many people enjoy having flowering aloes in their garden. Along with other beautiful indigenous flowering plants like honeysuckles and the Wild Dagga (Leonotis) which I depict here, these can provide the sunbirds with sweet food year-round. Other sunbird species like the white-bellied and the amethyst also enter gardens, and indeed to a degree these different species tolerate each other. The Marico sunbird is at present not at all endangered.

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