Purple pursuits

World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated twice a year, on the second weekend of May and October, to raise awareness of migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to conserve them. So today, 9th October, is the day. Migratory birds are a clear example of how the world is so closely connected and how everyone plays a role in conserving our ecosystems. Something happening in the harsh cold of Europe can affect us here in India, through the passage of these resilient creatures. We currently haven’t encountered any of the migratory birds in our limited urban space in Kandivali East, but realise that our local resident birds are very important too, and we must ensure that we do not destroy their habitats.

When you think purple, which birds come to mind? Having lived near a lake in Bangalore, the Purple Heron and Purple Swamphen are the ones I immediately used to think of. These days, it’s the Purple-rumped Sunbird (Leptocoma zeyonica), found only in the Indian sub-continent, and a resident of our park.

Distribution of purple-rumped sunbird
(Source: Wikipedia)

Tiny at just about 10 cm, and very light, weighing about 10 grams, the sunbirds are delight to watch – if you can keep track of them.

Purple-rumped Sunbird
The male is very colourful, appearing in different shades as the sun shines on it – purple above the tail (which is how it gets its name), maroon, red, brown, green, blue, black, yellow, white.
Purple-rumped Sunbird female
The female is relatively subdued in appearance.

Sunbirds feed primarily on nectar and are particularly attracted to bright-coloured flowers like the Ixora, Calliandra and Hibiscus. Once can see them deftly grip onto flower stems and even the veins of leaves as they push their beaks into the flowers.

Female sunbird on a Hibiscus flower stalk
Female sunbird on a Hibiscus flower stalk
[Addendum 12th October 2021]
Sunbird female
Female sunbird
[Addendum 12th October 2021]
Purple-rumped sunbird
The male, surveying an Ixora plant before feeding.
Purple-rumped sunbird
Purple-rumped sunbird
Sunbirds usually perch to drink nectar from the flowers with their thin, long, curved beaks (rather than hover near the flowers like the hummingbirds do).
Purple-rumped sunbird
Calliandra flowers attract the sunbird
Getting ready for some Calliandra flowers.
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Purple-rumped sunbird
Purple-rumped sunbird
On a coconut tree, with plant material in its beak, probably for a nest. Note the purple “rump” above its tail.

Nests are made by the females but both the parents incubate the eggs. There are reports of sunbirds falling victim to “brood parasitism”. In the example below, picked off Twitter (see the thread here), a Purple-rumped Sunbird is feeding a much larger sized baby Cuckoo. [The Cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds and bullies the foster parents into rearing them as well.]

Brood parasitism example
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Purple-rumped sunbird
Clinging on to the midrib of a Hibiscus leaf.
Purple-rumped sunbird
Purple-rumped sunbird

Sunbirds, like other nectar-feeding creatures such as butterflies, are important pollinators. However, at times, they do not fulfil their pollinating tasks as they do not enter the flowers to get the nectar. One can see them attempt to pierce the base of the flower to suck out the nectar instead – an act that is referred to as “nectar robbing”.

Purple-rumped sunbird
This sunbird seems to be sucking out the nectar from the base of the flower.
Purple-rumped sunbird
This one is scratching off the pollen stuck on its beak.

All the pictures have been taken by Srivathsa, in the Whispering Palms Park, Kandivali East. We initially struggled to spot the birds while trying to trace them through their “titou” calls and the quick glimpses they offered us. Now we know their favourite spots. A great way to relax!

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