How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore

Sunbirds are small, brightly coloured birds with bills that are curved downwards and have tubular tongues.

These adaptations allow them to reach into flowers to access the nectar. While they mostly feed on nectar, invertebrates such as spiders are an important part of their diet as well. Due to their feeding patterns, they also act as pollinators to the flowers that they visit.  

Of hummingbirds and honeyeaters

Sunbirds are small passerines, or perching birds, occurring from Africa, Middle East, South Asia, to Indonesia and Northern Australia. Other major bird pollinator families include the hummingbirds in the Americas and honeyeaters in Australia, which have similar adaptations due to convergent evolution.

This means that the sunbird, hummingbird and honeyeater lineages have independently evolved features of similar form or structure but these features were not present in their last common ancestor.

There are seven species of sunbirds in Singapore, with the most common species being the Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) and Brown-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis). The rarest species are the Plain Sunbird (Anthreptes simplex) and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (Chalcoparia singalensis).

When visiting our parks and gardens, you may have spotted the pouch-shaped nests of sunbirds. They are constructed from leaves, grass and spider web, enclosed with a side entrance, and suspended from thin branches. Sunbirds are generally monogamous and both parents will work together to raise their young.

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Left: A female Olive-backed Sunbird sitting in the nest, incubating eggs. Photo credit: Jacqueline Chua. Right: Two Olive-backed Sunbird chicks waiting for their parents to return with food. Photo credit: Tok Yin Xin

Look towards Home

When trying to identify the sunbirds in Singapore, try to look at the habitat that the bird is found in. In an urban park, the Olive-backed (Cinnyris jugularis) and Brown-throated (Anthreptes malacensis) Sunbirds are the most commonly-seen species, while the Copper-throated Sunbird (Leptocoma calcostetha) and the Van Hasselt’s Sunbird (Leptocoma brasiliana) can be found in mangroves and forests respectively.

Sunbirds are brightly coloured, sometimes with iridescent feathers, like many species of hummingbirds. They also display sexual dimorphism, which means that the males and females have evolved different colouration. Males usually have distinct colouration, which makes them more easily identifiable. However, females of different sunbird species can look very similar.

Here are some useful guidelines to help you differentiate between the common sunbird species found in Singapore.

Species commonly found in our urban parks and gardens

 

Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis)

Brown-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis)

Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)

Male

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Photo credit: Cai Yi Xiong

  • Olive-green upper parts
  • Iridescent blue forehead, throat and upper breast
  • Yellow under parts

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Photo credit: Tok Yin Xin

  • Metallic blue crown and upper parts
  • Brown throat
  • Yellow under parts
  • Red iris

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Photo credit: Ong Ruici

  • Reddish with dark grey under parts
  • Dark blue crown and tail
  • Dark streaks on face

Female

 

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Photo credit: Cai Yi Xiong

  • Olive-green upper parts
  • Yellow under parts
  • Black iris
  • Yellow “eyebrow” (also known as supercilium)

How to tell the difference between the Sunbirds found in Singapore
Photo credit: Tok Yin Xin

  • Olive upper parts
  • Yellow under parts
  • Red iris
  • Yellow broken eye-ring

Identifying the Sunbirds of Singapore
Photo by: Francis Yap

  • Grey-olive upper parts
  • Pale yellow under parts
  • Black iris

 

Other species that are easily confused

The males of the Van Hasselts’ Sunbird and Copper-throated Sunbird may be easily confused with each other due to their iridescent throats and upper parts. However, the Copper-throated Sunbird is slightly larger and, the easiest distinguishing feature is, it does not have a red breast, unlike the Van Hasselt’s Sunbird. The following table illustrates more distinguishing features of these two species.

Name

Van Hasselts’ Sunbird (Leptocoma brasiliana)

Copper-throated Sunbird (Leptocoma calcostetha)

Habitat

Forest

Mangrove

Description

Identifying the Sunbirds of Singapore
Photo credit: David Chua

Male

  • Iridescent green cap
  • Iridescent purple-throat
  • Red-breast
  • Whitish under parts
  • Bluish iridescent upper parts

Identifying the Sunbirds of Singapore
Photo credit: Francis Yap

Male

  • Iridescent reddish-copper throat
  • Purple under parts
  • Iridescent green upper parts
  • Tail is longer than other sunbirds

 

Identifying the Sunbirds of SingaporePhoto credit: Francis Yap

Female

  • Olive upper parts
  • Yellow under parts

 

Identifying the Sunbirds of Singapore
Photo credit: Francis Yap

Female

  • Grey head
  • Olive upper parts
  • White broken eye-ring
  • White throat
  • Dirty yellow belly
  • Tail is longer than other female sunbirds

Love Birds?

Love to bird-watch, or want to learn more about identifying garden birds? Join us for Garden Bird Watch, that runs twice a year as part of the NParks Community in Nature Biodiversity Watch series. Click here for more information.

Text by Tok Yin Xin

 

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