Heliconias and sunbirds

posted in: Feeding strategy, Feeding-plants, Sunbirds | 10

Heliconias (Heliconia spp.) are native to Central and South America and some islands of the South Pacific. Because they bear large, colorful and conspicuous flowering branches in various sizes, shapes and designs, they are favourite garden plants throughout the tropics and subtropics. They grow fast and within months they flower. Heliconias are excellent as border plants, for landscaping or even when grown in large containers.

The flowering branch or inflorescence is either erect or pendent and is the most conspicuous feature of the plant. Borne along the inflorescence are many colourful bracts – red, pink, orange, yellow or even green. Found within these bracts are the flowers.


In their native countries, hummingbirds are the main pollinators of the flowers in the New World tropics, replaced by bats in the Old World tropics. The length and curvature of the hummingbird’s bill match the length of the flowering tube and this helps in pollination.

However, outside the neotropical regions where no hummingbirds are found, sunbirds have exploited this feeding niche and regularly visit heliconia flowers. The images on the left show the Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) (top) and Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja) (bottom) collecting nectar from heliconia flowers. The bills of these sunbirds are different from those of hummingbirds and although they benefit from the nectar, in most cases do not help in pollinating the flowers.

In fact, if you want to attract sunbirds to your garden, a sure way is to grow heliconias.

As bats pollinate these flowers in the Old World tropics, it would be interesting to check out the situation locally. This is a challenge thrown to the local bat enthusiasts.

The flowers last only a day but as there are many flowers per bract and many bracts per inflorescence, the flowering period is extended for weeks or even months.

One of the best place to view sunbirds visiting heliconia flowers is the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Birding tourists make it a point to spend a few hours there to birdwatch – and to check out the heliconias and sunbirds .

YC Wee
November 2007
(Images of sunbirds visiting the flowers by Johnny Wee)

10 Responses

  1. Tiba

    Fabulous pictures of sunbirds!I have taken up your suggestion and planted heliconias to attract sunbirds. Do they nest throughout the year?

  2. Lam Chun See

    No wonder the olive sunbirds like to come to my garden. I have several of them. Thanks for the info. But I have a crepe myrtle amongs the heliconias and they seem to like it more. I think I will try to observe a bit more in detail.

  3. kyoto

    Hi YC, just to understand better, what is

    1) what is Old World tropics, New World tropics, and neotropics.

    is it
    Old World tropics= Asian tropical regions ( ie Singapore is in the Old World tropics)
    New World tropics= South American/Latin American tropical regions;
    neo tropics = New World tropics?

    2) Hummingbirds are found only in New World tropics. Is this correct?

    I have seen tiny birds whose wings flap madly when they try to drink nectar and they stay in a stationary position, are these hummingbirds or sunbirds? I have seen the sunbird and crimson sunbird but their wings don’t flap that much.

  4. YC

    You are absolutely correct re 1 and 2. Hummingbirds flap their wings rapidly when drinking nectar from flowers. Sunbirds don’t.

  5. Tiba Prabhu

    I recently caught a pair of bulbuls attacking a sunbird which
    was building a nest on my balcony. Do bulbuls normally
    destroy sunbird nests?

  6. BESG

    This is new to me, an aggressive bulbul. I take it that the bulbul attacked the bird but left the nest alone or did not get a chance to destroy the nest?

  7. Simon

    I have also observed this behaviour where Bulbuls attacked some Black Sunbirds and completely destroyed their nest. The Sunbirds rebuilt their nest in a new location only to have the Bulbuls come back and destroy their nest again. I did not observe the Sunbirds in that area again and assumed they had moved elsewhere. I hope those pesky Bulbuls finally left them alone.

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