Watching a sunbird in action elicits a dazzling kind of joy. These tiny, jewel-toned birds are members of the Nectariniidae family and are often spotted with their slender, curved beaks deep inside the base of flowers. Some species hover above blooms while they drink nectar, others perch on a convenient branch as they forage, while some cheeky birds will puncture the base of the flower to gain access to the sugars, especially if they are imbedded deep within. Observing them is an uplifting experience that drives home just how beautiful nature can be.
There are over 150 species of sunbirds in the world, “found in multiple habitats from evergreen and scrub forest to coastal mangroves, Himalayas, and areas of human habitation,” says Shashank Dalvi, a scientist and conservationist currently working in the Nicobar Islands. “In India, sunbirds are found in all habitats, except high-elevation desert areas.”
India has 15 members of the Nectariniidae family, including 13 species of sunbirds and two species of spiderhunters. As the family name suggests, these birds survive largely on floral nectar and are crucial pollinators in the ecosystems they inhabit. In addition to nectar, sunbirds also eat insects such as ants, caterpillars, spiders, and small grasshoppers.
Indian sunbirds exist in a variety of habitats, from dense forests to urban parks in concrete jungles. “It doesn’t matter where you are — a crowded city, a small nature park, a huge wildlife sanctuary — some sunbird is always around; all you have to do is pay attention,” says Dalvi.
If you take a mindful walk through a park in Mumbai or Bangalore, you might catch sight of a purple sunbird or a purple-rumped sunbird flittering about a copper pod tree. Both are widely distributed. Other species, such as Vigors’s sunbird and crimson-backed sunbirds, are found exclusively in the Western Ghats.
Each species has distinct behaviour, breeding pattern, and preferred diet — much of which is still being researched. Here’s what we do know about these feisty little birds.