Something came up at a meeting the other day and I consider it worth discussing. And it concerns birds – which is good, because I haven’t done much on birds at Tet Zoo lately. Specifically, it concerns sunbirds, or nectariniids, the nectarivorous, superficially hummingbird-like passerines of the Old World tropics. Sunbirds are passeroid oscines: they’ve generally been considered related to the mostly frugivorous, mostly Australasian flowerpeckers or dicaeids*, and both appear to be the sister-group to the huge passeroid clade – dubbed ‘core passeroids’ by Barker et al. (2001) – that includes accentors, sparrows, finches, weavers, pipits, buntings, tanagers, woodwarblers, icterids and others (Ericson & Johansson 2003, Sefc et al. 2003, Beresford et al. 2005). There are about 130 sunbird species, and they occur across Africa, the Middle East, tropical Asia, Madagascar, and the Comores. One species reaches Australia…
* Some authors have in fact included flowerpeckes among Nectariniidae.
With groups of this size, wouldn’t it be nice if all or most species had memorable, sensible names. Well, the good news is that this is the case for at least some of them. The Scarlet-chested sunbird Chalcomitra senegalensis* really does have an obviously scarlet chest [see below: photo from fatbirder.com], the Green-throated sunbird C. rubescens really does have an obviously green throat, the Blue-headed sunbird Cyanomitra alinae really does have an obviously blue head, and the Pygmy long-tailed sunbird Hedydipna platura really is small and long-tailed. But we are the victims of history, and the names that animals have are often far from the best, or the most appropriate.
* For those interested, note that I have used the revised taxonomy whereby Nectarinia sensu Delacour is split into multiple genera (Irwin 1999).
Consider Cinnyris chloropygius: an African species with bright yellow pectoral tufts, a scarlet chest, blue throat, and metallic green head and tail coverts. Metallic green sunbird? Blue-throated sunbird? Yellow-tufted sunbird? No, it was named for its dullest, most easily overlooked, least remarkable bit of anatomy: its olive belly. Olive? What the hell kind of colour is olive? Is ‘olive’ even a colour? I admit that I’m challenged when it comes to colours – to me, ‘olive’ is just some sort of nondescript greeny/browny colour. Anyway, C. chloropygius is, yes, the Olive-bellied sunbird.
What about Cyanomitra verticalis: another African yellow-tufted species, males have a metallic blue or green head and throat, and an unusual greyish belly. Greyish-bellied sunbird? Metallic-headed sunbird? No… Olive-backed sunbird (although it’s also known as the Green-headed sunbird: it’s shown at the very top, image from here). To add insult to injury, there’s Cinnyris jugularis of southern Bangladesh, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, SE Asia, China and Australia. Sporting a bright yellow belly and a metallic purple and green throat, it also has a pretty wide distribution. It should be the Yellow-bellied sunbird or something, and in fact this is the name usually used for it in Australia. But no, like Cyanomitra verticalis it’s also known as the Olive-backed sunbird. Two ‘olive-backed sunbirds’?? Argh. Then there’s Cyanomitra olivacea [shown below: image from here]. Ok, the scientific name might already have given the game away, but with its plain plumage, reasonably large size, solitary habits, and unusual form of movement (Serle et al. (1990) described it as lacking ‘the grace and spontaneity of most sunbirds’ (p. 231)) it’s unusual in several respects. And, yes, so unusual that it’s known as the (yawn) Olive sunbird (actually, C. olivacea is the Eastern olive sunbird. There’s also a Western olive sunbird, C. obscura).
Whether these names prove useless in terms of field identification is a matter of opinion. Maybe you’re supposed to learn what birds look like before going out into the field and trying to identify them: I have no experience whatsoever in identifying sunbirds, but while I know the appearance of most of the European birds I go out and look at, I think that my memory is often jogged when I can associate physical features with a common name. This memory jogging method is likely to fail when we consider some of the other sunbirds: think of the Handsome sunbird Aethopyga bella, Lovely sunbird A. shelleyi, Regal sunbird Cinnyris regius [shown below: from wikipedia], Shining sunbird C. habessinicus, Beautiful sunbird C. pulchellus, Variable sunbird C. venustus, Superb sunbird C. superbus, and Noted sunbird C. notatus (aka Madagascar sunbird).
The lesson from this, if there is one, is that common names are often little more than labels, and at worse they’re uninspiring and, from an admittedly personal perspective, often fail to capture anything interesting or remarkable about the species concerned. Maybe ornithologists just like the colour ‘olive’ a lot more than I do.
We’ll come back to sunbirds one day. It’s to do with their bills….
Refs – -
Barker, F. K., Barrowclough, G. F. & Groth, J. G. 2001. A phylogenetic hypothesis for passerine birds: taxonomic and biogeographic implications of an analysis of nuclear DNA sequence data. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B 269, 295-308.
Beresford, P., Barker, F. K., Ryan, P. G. & Crowe, T. M. 2005. African endemics span the tree of songbirds (Passeri): molecular systematics of several evolutionary ‘enigmas’. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 272, 849-858.
Ericson, P. G. P. & Johansson, U. S. 2003. Phylogeny of Passerida (Aves: Passeriformes) based on nuclear and mitochondrial sequence data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29, 126-138.
Irwin, M. P. S. 1999. The genus Nectarinia and the evolution and diversification of sunbirds: an Afrotropical perspective. Honeyguide 45, 45-58.
Sefc, K. M., Payne, R. B. & Sorenson, M. D. 2003. Phylogenetic relationships of African sunbird-like warblers: Moho (Hypergerus atriceps), Green hylia (Hylia prasina) and Tit-hylia (Pholidornis rushiae). Ostrich 74, 8-17.
Serle, W., Morel, G. J. & Hartwig, W. 1990. A Field Guide to the Birds of West Africa. Collins, London.