Why do Birds Eat Flowers? Lineated Barbet – new food source

posted in: Feeding strategy, Feeding-plants | 0

“I have occasionally seen birds eat flowers and wonder why they do that. There are a number of reasons, and possibly some we have yet to understand well:

1. Nutrition – to get at the Nectar
“Some birds eat tiny flowers to get at the nectar they contain. I have seen a number of birds eat the small flowers of the Poikilospermum suaveolens (Family: Urticaceae) to get to the nectar. These include: Streaked Spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna musarum), Black-throated Sunbird (Aethopyga saturata wrayi), Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (Garrulax mitratus), Brown-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis), Long-tailed Sibia (Heterophasia picaoides wrayi).

2. To obtain necessary trace elements in the diet or special items for breeding
“I have seen Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata), a few occasions, feeding on nutrient rich filamentous algae Spirogyra, which is suggest to enable them to become physiologically ready for breeding. While not a flower, it indicates that birds may take other food items necessary for development. Flowers contain many components, including macro (N, P, K, Na, Ca, Mg, S) and microelements (Fe, Zn, Cu, Mn) which may be necessary for bird physiology. I have seen the Yellow Vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier) feed the flowers of the yellow peanut plant (Arachis pintoi) in large volumes to fledged juveniles. I have also seen an immature Yellow Vented Bulbul self-feeding on ‘orchid’ flowers.

3. Medicinal value
“Specific flowers may be rich in Vitamins (especially A, B & C), some contain antioxidants, antimicrobial or anti-inflammatory properties, others have wound healing activity or can stimulate the immune system. I suspect this is one of the major reasons birds eat flowers. We underrate their innate intelligence and ability to find the right food source to meet diverse needs.

4. Limited food sources
“Finally conventional food sources may be limited and birds may resort to eating flowers to supplement the diet.

Lineated Barbet eating flowers of Flame of the Forest.

Lineated Barbet – new food source
“I saw a Lineated Barbet (Megalaima lineata hodgsoni) eating the flowers of the Delonix regia (commonly called Flame of the Forest), see (above, below). This is a new food source for me. I have previously reported them eating the flowers of the Tamarindus indica (Tamarind tree). Short & Horne (2019) on Lineated Barbet (Psilopogon lineatus) in Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive describes them taking flower petals and nectar as food. ‘Lineated Barbets have also been observed to feed on the fruits and flowers of the exotic species – Cecropia species, Falcataria moluccana, and Ptychosperma macarthurii‘ (Lok, Tey and Subaraj. Barbets Of Singapore Part 1: Megalaima Lineata Hodgsoni Bonaparte, The Lineated Barbet, Singapore’s Only Exotic Species. Nature in Singapore 2009 2: 39–45).

LIneated Barbet eating flowers of Flame of the Forest.

“Ken Fern, Ajna Fern, Richard Morris. 2018. Useful Tropical Plants Database (available online: HERE states on Delonix regia that ‘The leaves, flowers, seed and bark of this plant contain a range of medicinally active compounds, though the leaves are generally the richest source of most of these compounds. The plant is reported to have antibacterial, antidiabetic, antidiarrhoeal, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antioxidant, cardio-protective, gastro-protective, hepato-protective and wound healing activity. …. The active compounds include flavonoids, alkaloids, saponins, sterols, beta-sitosterol, lupeol, tannins, carotenoids, and phenolic acids. ….The metabolite-rich fractions of the sequentially extracted flowers and seeds have shown antifungal activity ….

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
13th November 2018

Location: Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Habitat: Urban environment

Addendum: Communications with Rosli Omar and Dr David R Wells

1. Amar-Singh to David R Wells

a). “I do not think flower eating by birds is that uncommon, just less commonly observed.
I did not mention but in the USA the Cedar Waxwing is well recognised as a bird that eats flower buds, flowers and young leaves, especially during their spring migration.
Other US birds that eat flowers include the Northern Cardinal, House Finch, Purple Finches, Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, Eevening Ggrosbeaks, American Goldfinches and Quail.
Quail there are fond of Jasmine blooms. (see: Terry W. Johnson. Out My Backdoor: Don’t Eat My Spring Flowers! LINK)

b). “I suspect plain old nutrition is a factor. When you’ve seen an adult Yellow Vented Bulbul harvest and stuffy 19 heads of the Arachis pintoi flowers into a juvenile, you recognise that they know what they are doing – its nutritious (or else keeping the juvenile quite for a while!).

c). “I agree with you Rosli – many adults/humans have a cultural background of eating flowers and some have now begun to re-learn to eat flowers for their value.

d). “I cannot really answer this:
> What I don’t understand is, why would plants provide flowers that are beneficial when eaten by animals?
>That would defeat the role played by the flowers i.e. to attract animals to go for the nectar thus assist pollination.
>Ideally they should produce toxic flowers so that animals would have to go directly for the nectar and not touch the flowers.

“Maybe what the plant produces as toxic, the bird finds nutritious?
However, it must be remembered that the vast majority of flowers in Malaysia are not native to our country but imported.
Hence these flowers are not native to our bird species & not evolved with them; so they may use them differently then evolution intended.

2. David Wells to Amar-Singh and Rosli Omar

“The very fact that this correspondence between dedicated observers is going on suggests to me one thing: that flower-petal eating by birds is out-of-the-ordinary/unusual behaviour – and that might this might narrow down the range of possible explanations. Might these involve secondary compounds with a flower protective function, bad tasting but also with some medicinal properties? Note that, in the UK, Wood Pigeons and Bullfinches are notorious strippers of cherry and plum etc. flower buds in late winter – but perhaps before such compounds have fully developed. All interesting speculation.

3. Rosli Omar to Amar-Singh

“What I don’t understand is, why would plants provide flowers that are beneficial when eaten by animals? That would defeat the role played by the flowers ie., to attract animals to go for the nectar thus assist pollination. Ideally they should produce toxic flowers so that animals would have to go directly for the nectar and not touch the flowers.

“I suppose most plants manage to produce flowers for that role since most of them are not eaten. Still, enough species do produce flowers that are eaten. Malays, e.g., eat the red flowers of Bunga Dedap (Erythrina spp.) as kerabu. My mother used to do this and it was quite delicious.”

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