What do sunbirds eat?

on 1st February 2007


Sunbirds are a group of small Old World passerine birds that feed mainly on nectar but also take insects and small fruits (left top). When feeding their young, insects are the main diet.

Sunbirds are considered the jewels of the Old World tropics. Many species, especially the males, possess glittering iridescent colours. In morphology and nectar feeding behaviour, they remind one of the hummingbirds of the neotropics. In both groups, the females are plain. But sunbirds and hummingbirds are definitely not related.

Sunbirds are omnivorous, feeding primarily on nectar and insects. When feeding on nectar they prefer to perch rather than hover as hummingbirds do. For nectar, these birds probe a wide range of plant, rather than specialising on specific species. With exotic plants where the birds may not be able to reach the nectar, they may short circuit the process by probing through the base of the petals, as sometime they do with hibiscus flowers.

Sunbirds also glean the foliage for insects or sally for flying insects from the top of shrubs (left bottom). They also eat small fruits. And possibly also pollen.

Text by YC Wee, images of Purple-throated Sunbird (Nectariniua sperata) (top) and Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarinia jugularis) with an insect in its bill (bottom) are by Johnny Wee.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

46 Responses

  1. Hi, I found a baby Olive-backed sunbird in my office carpark a few days ago (it was chirping loudly and in the middle of a lot), and I brought the bird home. It already has feathers and can fly low, but still needs to be hand fed.
    Can I have some advice on whether I would be able to release it back to the wild? I currently feed it a variety comprosing of worms, baby food and it drinks honey water. Any advice? Thanks.

    1. First and foremost, you should have placed the baby sunbird in a safe place (away from stray cats, etc) and not remove it from the area, The adults are nearby and will take care of it. If it is eating what you are feeding it, then it is alright. Why not send it back to where you found it, in a box maybe and placed a little high up?

  2. Hi

    We have a Baby sunbird who has fled the nest more than once and is quite helpless – the adults may still be around but we keep finding him on the ground in our garden

    a) can we put him back in the nest again – we have done this once and the adults continued to feed him

    b) if we handle him and feed him as well ( he seems very hungry) will the adults ignore him ?

    thanks in advance Phillipa

    1. By all means place the chick back onto the nest. The adults will then take over. No need to feed it unless the adults fail to return for whatever reasons.

  3. found a baby “suikerbekkie” in the garden. it can’t fly yet, jumps around and when he tries to fly he falls. I can’t find the nest and there are plenty dogs & cats around. I really don’t want to captive a young wild bird but also don’t want to see it become my pet’s snack… what do I do?

  4. My parents found a black-naped oriole fledgling on the ground early 2015. They placed the young bird in an open cage, hung near shelter from the sun. The took it out in the day and kept it in their house at night. The fledgling’s parent came to feed it, as well as possibly an older sibling. ( You could see the older sibling was clumsier at feeding but tried to help). These creatures have community and they have much knowledge on how to bring up their young ( diet, stage of growth). With cooperation with bird and human, the fledgling is now a strong juvenile and flying around the canopy.My father still puts food out for her.

  5. Yes, we should not remove newly fledged birds home but leave them on a higher ground for the adults to feed them. They will eventually fly off by themselves.

  6. Do sunbirds also eat seeds at all (e.g. the birdseed sold in bird shops)? Also, is it a good idea to leave birdseed out on trays for birds to eat (e.g. on balconies)? Please advise, thanks!

    1. Sunbirds do take fruits occasionally, the soft parts. Not sure about birdseeds though. Personally, I see nothing wrong feeding birds in your balcony as long as it is not taken to extreme.

  7. Many birds DO NOT eat birdseed, not only Sunbirds. If you want to raise birds in captivity, do proper research on what they eat well beforehand before attempting to obtain the birds. Some species have extremely specialised diets. For example, Pittas need huge amounts of earthworms. They also cannot be raised in aviaries with hard floors, otherwise they develop foot problems.
    Even certain varieties of supposedly commonly kept birds may have unusual nutritional needs if you want them to remain healthy. For example, though most parrots will SURVIVE on a diet of seeds, to really see them thrive, you need to include fruits, vegetables, eggshells or bones. Yes, the latter are necessary to provide calcium.
    And there are parrots that simply will not live long on seeds alone. Lorikeets and Eclectus are examples.

  8. Hi,
    I have a baby sunbird that was found on the ground with a broken right leg (just above the bend of the leg)…couldn’t find the nest in any of the trees nearby & plenty of predators around. I took it home & am trying to raise it… I have successfully raised various other birds over the years (all seed eaters though) & feel that I am out of my depth with this little bird. I have googled what to feed a sunbird: honey mixed with fruit flies / sypup with ants etc… what do you recomend… I found him on the morning of the 01/01/16 & have been feeding him on these 2 things so far, but am worried that it is not the right thing for him – please help?

  9. For your sunbird you can try pureed, sweetened baby food from a bottle, the kind human babies are fed on. Try one of the fruit flavours.
    Also, handfeeding formula for baby parrots might work. You can get it from Goodwill Bird Trading at Serangoon North Avenue 2. But it is expensive, and a can, meant for maybe three or four babies of the large parrot breeds, will be enough to feed hundreds of sunbirds. Sometimes, they will sell you small packets for about $7. The adult sunbirds will eat it, but I am not sure about a baby. Sorry to say, I don’t think the chances of survival are high.

  10. I found a nest and it appears the adult has abandoned them
    I am trying to find out what I can feed them
    I have been looking for bugs but can’t find any.
    I have some lychees and mince at work. Is any of this any good

  11. Hello,

    I got a sunbird and it is not yet fully learnt flying and it was abandoned. can some one tell what should I feed it?

  12. Hi I am from south India. Sun bird visits my room everyday to peck a paper chime which hangs near the window, she tries pecking it mistaking for food and flies of. Any suggestions that I can feed her or bird feed kinda….?

  13. Hi I found a young sunbird with both its legs crippled & 1 wing not totally functional. . It can fly abit at ground level & up to 1 foot high but can’t perch due to d crippled legs. I placed it in a box above ground on my balcony. The parents come to feed it once in awhile only but visits are getting less. They may be wondering y their baby isn’t flying off to join them. I give it honey water only as i can’t find worms or insects. I will care for it as it can never fly off or perch, & I feel sad for it. Will it likely die sooner than later? Any other tips that hasn’t been given already? Thks

  14. Hi I found an olive backed sunbird but unfortunately our pet rabbit bites it’s beak and it was broken. Is it okay for me to release it? Would it be able to eat with its current condition? Please help.

  15. To be honest i found one and dont know what to feed it other than honey/water… Do they eat seeds/normal bird feed??

  16. Sunbirds are considered to be very difficult aviculture subjects, but they can be raised if you are prepared to spend a lot of time and money.
    Their diet consists of a mixture of fruit, nectar and insects. In what proportion? Only the bird can decide, after wasting quite a bit each day.
    They DO NOT EAT birdseed.
    For fruit, they like soft, over-ripe papaya, mango and other fruits with pulpy flesh.
    The best nectar would be one of the commercial mixes for feeding nectar feeding parrots (lorikeets). You can buy that from the bird shops in Serangoon North at about $25 for a can the size of two soup tins.
    If you don’t have that, sweetened and diluted baby food might work.
    For insects, sunbirds will eat mealworms and cut-up crickets.
    And they MAY take a little bit of finely powdered food of the type used for feeding White Eyes (Zosterops).
    A lot of the food will be splashed around, and the entire process is messy.
    Sunbirds are definitely NOT CAGE BIRDS. The people I know who have raised them with some success have done so in fairly large aviaries.

  17. I might also add that being very small birds, with not much body mass and few reserves of fat, sunbirds starve to death quickly and also succumb easily to excessive heat or cold.
    The above is also true of all small birds, so take care when raising them.

  18. Hi I am from Ethiopia working as tour Guid of in bird there are almost 820 deferent birds in my country I have been working in in bird Guid for mor than 10 year so if any one is interest to visit you can contact me this is my contact 251961050707 I hope to here from every on thanks for reading my message

  19. I found a little chick and the nest is fallen fown i fixed the nest with a thread and attched ut to the tree again but still parents didn’t visit is it because of the new look? Cause Little hanging parts are omitted

  20. Hai!
    so there was 2 baby bird the nest at my house. today one of them manage to fly but the other is still inside the nest and all the time the mother will return to the nest at night but today when I go check it, the mother is not inside at all only left with a baby sunbird. is there a chance where the mom will abandon the baby?

  21. Hi there,

    Need some advice. Last night I found a fledging sunbird below its nest in my garden. The parent was already sleeping in its nest since it was already late – I put the fledging back though, and the mother flew away when I reached into the nest(to put it back). I checked the nest 15 mins later and the parent was still away.

    This morning I checked the nest and realised the fledging is back outside the nest.. definitely recall putting it back.

    Nonetheless i put it into the nest again (mother bird was not present).

    When i was leaving i saw the mother bird around the garden, its safe to say the bird will not get abandoned?

    Thank you for your help!

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