Field of Science

Birds of the Sun

Handsome sunbird Aethopyga bella, photographed by Tonee Despojo. This species was only recently separated at species level from the lovely sunbird Aethopyga shelleyi; one of the distinguishing features of the two is the purple ear-patch in A. bella.

The sunbirds are definitely forerunners in the tally of the world's most brilliantly coloured birds. This family of long-billed nectar-feeders, found in tropical regions of the Old World, is often compared to the New World hummingbirds. Like hummingbirds, the males of most sunbirds shimmer with brilliant iridescent colours (the exceptions are the spiderhunters of the genus Arachnothera); the females are much more restrained, generally shades of olive-green or brown. However, though hummingbirds are committed aerialists (as befits their relationship with the swifts and nightjars), sunbirds are, as Passeriformes, more likely to feed while perched on a stem alongside their chosen flower. Also, while sunbirds are primarily nectar feeders, they also feed to a fair extent on small insects (this is also true of hummingbirds).

Male (above) and female (below) of fork-tailed sunbird Aethopyga christinae. Male photographed by Frankie Chu, female by Neil Fifer.

Sunbirds are also a rather less diverse group than hummingbirds, both in number of species and in external appearance. Because of their structural similarity, authors have differed in the number of genera recognised in the family, but one group that has generally been differentiated is the Aethopyga sunbirds of southern Asia. Aethopyga species tend to be smaller than other sunbirds, with relatively short but strongly downcurved bills. The male has the central tail-feathers elongate (Ali & Ripley 1999). Aethopyga species are also distinguished from other sunbirds by the structure of the tongue. As with other sunbirds, the tongue is elongate, with the sides curved inwards to form a double tube. Differing from others, the end of the tongue is divided into two inwardly open tubes but with a basal bifurcated plate connecting the tubes:

Tongues of sunbirds of different genera showing differences in morphology, from Cheke & Mann (2001).

Cheke & Mann (2001) listed seventeen species of Aethopyga, with an eighteenth species being added by Mann (2002). Several of these species are also currently recognised as polytypic, with multiple subspecies. Though Mann's (2002) 'new' species was simply derived from the elevation of previously-recognised subspecies, one entirely new species of Aethopyga, A. linaraborae from Mindanao in the Phillippines, was only described as recently as 1997. No large scale analysis of the interrelationships between Aethopyga species appears to have been published as yet, but centres of diversity are the Philippines and the Himalayas.

Elegant sunbird Aethopyga duyvenbodei, photographed by Marc Thibault. Having been informed by their vernacular names that Aethopyga sunbirds are, in turn, handsome, lovely and elegant, it is all the sadder to say that this last species from Sangihe, near Sulawesi, is regarded as endangered.


Ali, S., & S. D. Ripley. 1999. Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, together with those of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, 2nd ed., vol. 10. Flowerpeckers to Buntings. Oxford University Press.

Cheke, R. A., & C. F. Mann. 2001. Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World. A & C Black Publishers.

Mann, C. F. 2002. Systematic notes on Asian birds. 28. Taxonomic comments on some south and south-east Asian members of the family Nectariniidae. Zool. Verh. Leiden 340: 179-189.


  1. Aethopyga appears to mean "burnt rump" or the like. Any idea why?

  2. Many (but not I'm not sure if all) Aethopyga species have bright yellow or yellow-banded rumps. I'm guessing that this is what the name refers to. Looking at photos of Aethopyga online, though, it looks as if the yellow rump might not be generally visible when the wings are closed; I did find a photo of A. bella with visible rump here.


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