We’ve just come through arguably my favourite season on Londolozi. Days are cool and the sun feels kinder, the lack of rain means the soil is dusty and perfect for tracking and one of my all time favourite plant species bursts into flower, namely the aloe. For just a few shorts weeks, these gnarly looking plants surprise us with delicate, nectar-rich flowers of the most vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. If you just strolled past these garden beds dotted around camp, you might notice the activity of some bees hungrily collecting nectar or the most beautiful array of tiny sunbirds flitting back and forth. Sitting down to investigate the goings on I soon noticed that not all was peaceful in these picturesque gardens though. As is so often the case with nature, there’s always a lot more going on than originally meets the eye. Within that seemingly sweet grouping lay one of the tiniest bullies in the world, a Scarlet-chested sunbird.

scarlet-chested sunbird, AB

A male Scarlet-chested sunbird, easily recognisable by its predominantly black body, emerald green throat and bright scarlet breast. Being the largest of the species I observed, these birds use their size to chase smaller competitors away. Photograph by Alice Brewer

The most common species of sunbirds we see here feeding on the aloes are the Collared, the White-bellied and the Scarlet-chested. For these small birds it is energetically expensive to maintain a constant body temperature in the cold, due to their unfavourable surface area to volume ratio. In addition, these avian nectarivores have high metabolic requirements and so have to consume a large amount of nectar to meet their energy needs. The sunbirds also feed on a variety of insects drawn in by the flowering plants and even sometimes spiders and small snails. So in amongst those delicate flowers that only pop up for a short time, there is some heavy competition and because the Scarlet-chested is the largest (only by about 6 grams, which I suppose is substantial when you’re that tiny) they tend to dominate.

white-bellied sunbird, AA

A male White-bellied sunbird feeds from an Aloe chabaudii. This species also feeds on insects and spiders. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

collared sunbird, AA

A Collared sunbird feeds from an Aloe Marlothii. Notice its slightly more stout bill compared to the other species. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

scarlet-chested sunbird, AB

A male Scarlet-chested sunbird. Even just in comparison to the photographs above one can see the size difference. Photograph by Alice Brewer

Just as one of the collared, white-bellied sunbirds or even female Scarlet-chested sunbirds would land and attempt to stick their long curved bills into the core of the flower, the male Scarlet-chested would shoot in screeching his aggravated call of a fast syip-syip-syip and the smaller bird would have to fly off to safety. Luckily for the others though, there is such a hive of activity on these aloes that the Scarlet-chested can’t be everywhere at once, meaning that when he is distracted the other species are able to hurriedly sip the nectar using their long beaks and thin tongues before being spotted by greedy competition.

white-bellied sunbird, AA

A White-bellied sunbird buries its beak deep into the flower and then uses its thin tongue to sip the nectar. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

I found the whole scene completely fascinating and from behind my computer screen in the office nearby, I would smile upon hearing the shrill aggravated call of the Scarlet-chested sunbird. This little bird certainly proves that you don’t have to be big to be feisty.

Filed under Featured Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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3 Comments

on The Tiniest Bully

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Michael Klauber

Fabulous photos Amy! What do you shoot with?

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Michael! I shot with a Canon 7D Mark 2 and a Canon fixed 500mm lens. That giant of a lens definitely helped to get close enough without disturbing the action. Hope you’re well!

Darlene Knott

Thank you, Amy! I love the sunbirds, bully or not! 😀

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