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Flowerpeckers (Dicaeidae)

Flowerpeckers

(Dicaeidae)

Class Aves

Order Passeriformes

Suborder Passeri (Oscines)

Family Dicaeidae


Thumbnail description
Flowerpeckers (genera Prionochilus and Dicaeum) are very small, often brightly colored birds with short, usually straight, bills and short stubby tails; keeping to higher levels of trees, they are noisy, singing chattering songs and making piping calls; berrypeckers are similar but larger with longer and more slender bills

Size
2.2–8.3 in (5.6–21 cm); 0.14–2.8 oz (4–80 g)

Number of genera, species
6 genera; 52 species

Habitat
Tall forest; all habitats from sea-level up to more than 12,000 ft (3,700 m)

Conservation status
Critically Endangered: 1 species; Vulnerable: 2 species; Near Threatened: 5 species

Distribution
Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, south China, Hainan Island, Taiwan, the Malay peninsular, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, New Guinea and its surrounding islands, and Australia

Evolution and systematics

Apart from true flowerpeckers (genera Prionochilus and Dicaeum), the composition and affinities of the Dicaeidae are disputed. On the basis of DNA hybridization studies, no other genera in the family were admitted. However, berrypeckers (genera Melanocharis, Rhamphocharis, Oreocharis and Paramythia) of New Guinea and the eight species of pardalotes, or diamondbirds (Pardalotus spp.), found in Australia and Tasmania, are often included within the flowerpecker family. Berrypeckers, included here with flowerpeckers, have simply constructed tongues. The pardalotes differ from the other groups as they lack serrations on the bills and have simple tongues. Other close relatives of flowerpeckers include sunbirds (Nectariniidae) and the white-eyes (Zosteropidae).

Physical characteristics

Mostly small, these passerines are 2.2–8.3 in (5.6–21 cm) in length. Flowerpeckers in the genera Prionochilus and Dicaeum are small with short bills and short stubby tails and have the distal third of the upper mandibles serrated. Tongues of Prionochilus are split at the end and each prong is further subdivided by a cleft. Tongues of the Dicaeum species are similar but longer and more variable, some having their edges curled up to form two tubes to facilitate uptake of nectar. Species in both genera have frilly outer edges, termed fimbriations, to their tongues. Some species are dull in plumage but others are brightly colored with patterns of red or yellow contrasting with black or dark blue feathering. In most cases, plumages of females are duller than those of males.

Berrypeckers vary from the small tit-like Arfak berrypecker (Oreocharis arfaki) to the biggest member of the family, the thrush-like crested berrypecker (Paramythia montium). They have simple tongues, elongated straight bills, and lack specializations of the gut that those flowerpeckers that deal with mistletoe berries have. Melanocharis spp. and Rhamphocharis crassirostris have pectoral tufts.

Distribution

Flowerpeckers of the genus Prionochilus are found in Thailand, Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The genus Dicaeum occurs in the same areas but also extends to the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, south China, Hainan Island, Taiwan, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, New Guinea and its surrounding islands, and Australia. Berrypeckers (genera Melanocharis, Rhamphocharis, Oreocharis, and Paramythia) are restricted to New Guinea.

Habitat

Flowerpeckers and berrypeckers are mostly birds of forests, but some are found at sea-level and others occur very high up in mountains where vegetation is sparse. Many species are partial to secondary growth or even cultivations and the scarlet-backed flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) frequents towns and villages. The mistletoebird (D. hirundinaceum) is the only Australian representative, and it can be found in habitats ranging from rainforest to arid woodland.

Behavior

Flowerpeckers are active and agile birds, twisting and turning among foliage, flicking their wings, twittering, and calling sharply. They are usually single, or in pairs or small groups, but they will join mixed-species bird parties. They sometimes sit motionless on perches for long periods. Songs are mostly simple high-pitched chirps and clicks, but the musical ability of the mistletoebird is remarkable and mimics songs of many different Australian birds.

In contrast, berrypeckers such as the crested berrypecker (Paramythia montium) are highly social birds, often occurring in groups of up to 12 birds; a large flock of 75 has been observed. They sometimes stand with tail cocked and raise their crests if excited or frightened. They fly in a jerky manner and are noisy in flight making low, short, calls.

Feeding ecology and diet

Flowerpeckers are fond of treetops where they seek out mistletoe berries, fruits, nectar, pollen, small insects, and spiders. The fleshy part of large mistletoe berries is stripped off and eaten with the seeds discarded. There is an elaborate and amusing dance-like behavior as the birds try to deposit the seed on a branch and separate themselves from it and its sticky threads. Smaller fruits are eaten whole and pass very rapidly through the specialized gut that permits the berries to by-pass the stomach and enter the intestine directly; insects and spiders on the other hand are digested via the stomach. Insects may be caught by hawking, flycatcher-fashion. Berrypeckers are mostly frugivorous, but also take insects and spiders, occasionally hover-gleaning to catch them.

Reproductive biology

The reproductive behavior of flowerpeckers is little known and the eggs of some species have yet to be described. The mistletoebird is territorial, with males chasing intruders in weaving flights over their boundaries. For courtship, they flit around a female, calling and fanning their tails. Both sexes of most flowerpeckers are involved in building nests, incubation, and feeding of the young. Nests are neat purse-shaped bags with slit entrances near the tops and are suspended from bushes or trees. They are made of vegetable material, lichen, dried flowers, feathers, small roots, or grass, held together with cobwebs, and lined with vegetable down. Some nests are decorated with insect excreta or other debris. Most eggs are white, but those of a few species are spotted. The usual clutch is two but may be up to four. Nests of berrypeckers are cup-shaped and placed

in thick shrubbery. Only one egg is laid in the nests of Paramythia montium.

Conservation status

The Cebu flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor) is Critically Endangered with only a tiny population of less than 50 birds surviving in three forest fragments on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Long considered to be Extinct, the species was re-discovered in 1992. There are two other globally threatened species of flowerpecker in the Philippines: the black-belted or Visayan flowerpecker (D. haematostictum) and the scarlet-collared flowerpecker (D. retrocinctum). The black-belted flowerpecker is threatened as its small range in the western Visayas Islands is becoming increasingly fragmented by deforestation. The scarlet-collared flowerpecker also exists only in forest fragments, mostly in Mindoro, and is threatened by dynamite blasting for marble and encroachment by slash-and-burn agriculture. Also within the Philippines are two other flowerpeckers that are Near Threatened: the whiskered flowerpecker (D. proprium) is endemic to Mindanao and the flame-crowned flowerpecker (D. anthonyi) occurs only on Mindanao and Luzon. Other Near Threatened flowerpeckers include the white-throated flowerpecker (D. vincens) that is confined to Sri Lanka, while the scarlet-breasted flow-erpecker (Prionochilus thoracicus) and the brown-backed flow-erpecker (D. everetti) occur in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The obscure berrypecker (Melanocharis arfakiana) was thought to be Endangered for many years, but field-work in Papua New Guinea has shown it to be quite common in some areas, including at one site near Port Moresby. The species is apparently able to survive in degraded forest, so it may be adaptable in the face of logging and agricultural clearances of its native forest.

Significance to humans

Some species are accorded pest status as they spread parasitic mistletoes on trees of economic importance. The crested berrypecker is prized as food in the highlands of New Guinea.

Species accounts

List of Species

Scarlet-breasted flowerpecker
Thick-billed flowerpecker
Yellow-vented flowerpecker
Plain flowerpecker
Red-capped flowerpecker
Midget flowerpecker
Fire-breasted flowerpecker
Gray-sided flowerpecker
Mistletoebird
Scarlet-backed flowerpecker
Fan-tailed berrypecker

Scarlet-breasted flowerpecker

Prionochilus thoracicus

taxonomy

Pardalotus thoracicus Temminck and Laugier, 1836, Borneo.

other common names

French: Dicée à poitrine écarlate; German: Rubinkehl-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Pecho Carmín.

physical characteristics

4 in (10.2 cm); 0.32 oz (9 g). Dark brown head, wings, and tail with red patch on throat and crown. Back and rump yellow.

distribution

South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra.

habitat

Beaches at sea level up to 4,200 ft (1,280 m) in secondary forest, at forest edge, in rubber plantations, heath forest, and swamp forest.

behavior

Varied calls include clicks and high-pitched sequence of notes sounding like an insect. Feeds at all heights, sometimes on tree trunks.

feeding ecology and diet

Takes spiders from their webs, insects, and berries.

reproductive biology

Builds nest in low bush, breeds January–March and July– October.

conservation status

Uncommon and listed as Near Threatened. Continuing loss of primary forest is the main threat but species can find refuges in montane and secondary forests.

significance to humans

None known.


Thick-billed flowerpecker

Dicaeum agile

taxonomy

Fringilla agilis Tickell, 1833, Bengal, India. Eleven subspecies.

other common names

English: Striped flowerpecker; French: Dicée à bec épais; German: Dickschnabel-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Pico Ancho.

physical characteristics

4 in (10.2 cm); 0.32 oz (9 g). Olive-gray upperparts with whitish, lores, breast, belly, and undertail coverts.

distribution

Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, north Vietnam, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, and the Philippines.

habitat

Forests, woods, plantations, and gardens from sea-level up to 9,800 ft (3,000 m).

behavior

Acrobatic feeder that joins mixed-species groups. Characteristically wags its tail when perched.

feeding ecology and diet

Feeds in bushes and trees up to 100 ft (30 m) on wild fruits and berries of figs and mistletoes, spiders, and insects.

reproductive biology

Nest looks like a dead leaf suspended in a tree and resembles a small pouch made of fibers, buds, vegetable down, and spiders' webs with a side entrance. Lays clutch of two to four pale pink eggs with speckles of red during January–August.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in most of its range but rare in Myanmar and Indonesia.

significance to humans

None known.


Yellow-vented flowerpecker

Dicaeum chrysorrheum

taxonomy

Dicaeum chrysorrheum Temminck and Laugier, 1829, Java. Two subspecies.

other common names

French: Dicée culd'or; German: Gelbsteiss-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Rabo Amarillo.

physical characteristics

4 in (10.2 cm); 0.32 oz (9 g). Bright green upperparts with white streaked underparts and thin, dark eye stripe.

distribution

D. c. chrysochlore: Nepal to Bhutan, Myanmar, Indochina, and Thailand; D. c. chrysorrheum: southern Thailand to Sumatra, Bali, Java, and Borneo.

habitat

Lowland and hilly forest up to 6,600 ft (2,000 m) in Sikkim, woods, orchards, and gardens.

behavior

Feeds at all heights. Aggressive.

feeding ecology and diet

Food consists of berries of mistletoes, figs, nectar, and insects.

reproductive biology

Nest is well-hidden below 26 ft (8 m). Male and female assist in nest construction and incubation of two or three white eggs laid April–August.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in India, rare elsewhere.

significance to humans

None known.


Plain flowerpecker

Dicaeum concolor

taxonomy

Dicaeum concolor Jerdon, 1840, Malabar coast, India. Seven sub-species.

other common names

French: Dicée concolore; German: Einfarbmistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor Descolorido.

physical characteristics

3.3 in (8.4 cm); 0.14–0.28 oz (4–8 g). Drab in appearance with buff breast and belly and darker upperparts.

distribution

D. c. borneanum: Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra; D. c. concolor: southwest India; D. c. minullum: Hainan Island; D. c. olivaceum: India, Myanmar, China, Thailand, northern Malaysia; D. c. sollicitans: Bali and Java; D. c. uchidai: Taiwan; D. c. virescens: Middle and southern Andaman Islands.

habitat

Forests, secondary growth, open areas, and plantations, from sea-level to 11,800 ft (3,600 m).

behavior

Restless, usually seen singly in treetops, but also forages down low.

feeding ecology and diet

Heavily dependent on mistletoes for berries and nectar, but also eats insects and spiders.

reproductive biology

Nest is a small purse of down and fibers suspended 3.3–39 ft (1–12 m) up in a tree, bush, or low growth, in which are laid two or three white eggs from January–September. Male and female are involved in nest-building, incubation, and rearing of young.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in most of its range.

significance to humans

Spreads mistletoes.


Red-capped flowerpecker

Dicaeum geelvinkianum

taxonomy

Dicaeum geelvinkianum Meyer, 1874, Japan. Eleven subspecies.

other common names

English: Red-crowned flowerpecker; French: Dicée de Geelvink; German: Papuamistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Gorra Roja.

physical characteristics

2.4 in (6 cm). Brownish with scarlet crown, nape, and breast; white throat patch and vents.

distribution

New Guinea, Geelvink Bay Islands, and the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago.

habitat

Forests, forest edges, thick savanna, gardens, and plantations. Recorded as high as 7,700 ft (2,350 m).

behavior

Restless. Frequents treetops.

feeding ecology and diet

Fruits, sometimes eaten whole, and spiders.

reproductive biology

Two or three white eggs are laid November–December, in pear-shaped nests made of strips of ferns and animal hair suspended from low tree.

conservation status

Common, not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Midget flowerpecker

Dicaeum aeneum

taxonomy

Dicaeum aeneum Pucheran, 1853, San Jorge, Solomon Islands. Three subspecies.

other common names

English: Solomons flowerpecker; French: Dicée des Salomon; German: Bronzemistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de la Isla Salomon.

physical characteristics

2.2 in (5.6 cm); 0.25–0.31 oz (7.1–8.8 g). Grayish upperparts with white throat patch, scarlet breast patch and yellow-green flanks.

distribution

D. a. aeneum: Bougainville, Choiseul, and Ysabel in northern Solomon Islands; D. a. becki: Florida and Guadacanal; D. a. malaitae: Malaita Island.

habitat

All habitats in the Solomon Islands, up to 1,640 ft (500 m).

behavior

Bobs head up and down when lands on perch, after rapid flight. Usually alone or in pairs.

feeding ecology and diet

Occasionally hovers to feed. Eats fruits and insects.

reproductive biology

Nest is pear-shaped with a rounded base and side entrance, made of vegetable matter including grass, suspended low down in a bush. Male and female are involved in feeding young and taking away fecal sacs.

conservation status

Common, not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Fire-breasted flowerpecker

Dicaeum ignipectus

taxonomy

Myzante ignipectus Blyth, 1843, Nepal and Bhutan. Seven sub-species.

other common names

English: Buff-bellied flowerpecker; French: Dicée à gorge feu; German: Feuerbrust-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Lomo Verde.

physical characteristics

3.5 in (8.9 cm); 0.14–0.28 oz (4–8 g). Black crown and upper-parts with dark brown cheek, scarlet breast, and buff throat and belly.

distribution

D. i. apo: Mindanao and Negros; D. i. beccarii: Sumatra; D. i. bonga: Samar in the Philippines; D. i. cambodianum: Cambodia, northeast and southeast Thailand; D. i. dolichorhynchum: peninsular Malaysia; D. i. formosum: Taiwan; D. i. ignipectum: Kashmir,

northeast India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, northern Myanmar, northern Indochina, southern China, southeast Tibet.

habitat

Montane forests, oak woodlands, rhododendrons, and cultivations up to 12,950 ft (3,950 m).

behavior

Active at tops of trees. Joins parties and mixed-species flocks in nonbreeding season.

feeding ecology and diet

Nectar, fruits and berries of mistletoes, insects, and spiders.

reproductive biology

Two or three white eggs are laid in a purse-shaped nest made of vegetable material including rootlets, grass, and moss kept together with cobwebs and suspended in a tree 10–29 ft (3–9 m) up.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Gray-sided flowerpecker

Dicaeum celebicum

taxonomy

Dicaeum celebicum S. Müller, 1843, Celebes. Five subspecies.

other common names

English: Black-sided flowerpecker; French: Dicée des Célèbes; German: Schwarzwangen-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Dorso Negro.

physical characteristics

2.4 in (6 cm). Blue-black crown and upperparts with scarlet throat and breast, grayish sides and pale vents.

distribution

D. c. celebicum: Bangka, Butung, Lembeh, Manadotua, Muna, Sulawesi, and Togian; D. c. kuehni: the Archipelago of Tukangbesi; D. c. sanghirense: Sangihe; D. c. sulaense: Banggai and Sula; D. c. talautense: Talaud.

habitat

Varied environments including forests, forest edges, scrub, cultivations, gardens, and villages from sea level to 3,300 ft (1,000 m).

behavior

Holds itself upright and shakes wings before swallowing fruit. Calls are high-pitched repetitions of unmusical notes and a series of chirps in flight.

feeding ecology and diet

Swallows small fruits of mistletoes and cherries whole, but larger ones are pierced and the contents squeezed out. Also takes insects, spiders, nectar, and pollen.

reproductive biology

Three white eggs are laid in a nest shaped like a purse with a slit entrance near the top, sometimes with an overhanging porch. Made of vegetable down, grass, twigs, leaves, and cobwebs, the nest is suspended low in a tree.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Mistletoebird

Dicaeum hirundinaceum

taxonomy

Motacilla hirundinaceum Shaw and Nodder, 1792, New Holland (Australia). Four subspecies.

other common names

English: Australian flowerpecker, Australian flower swallow, mistletoe flowerpecker; French: Dicée hirondelle; German: Rotsteiss-Mistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor del Muérdago.

physical characteristics

3.7–4.3 in (9.5–11 cm); 0.28–0.35 oz (8–10 g). Blue-black upperparts with red throat, breast, and vents. White belly with black patch.

distribution

D. h. fulgidum: Tanimbar Islands; D. h. hirundinaceum: Australia (except Tasmania); D. h. ignicolle: Aru Island; D. h. keiense: Kai, Tayundu, and Watubele.

habitat

Forests, woodlands, savanna, scrub, and mangroves.

behavior

Utters characteristic two- or three-note calls, various flight notes, and song; is also a remarkable vocal mimic of many other birds. Keeps upright on perch. Restless, fast flier that is nomadic in search of fruiting mistletoes. When searching for food, tends to flick its wings, moving rapidly among upper branches of trees; also hawks for insects.

feeding ecology and diet

Heavily dependent on mistletoes; also feeds on insects, spiders, fruits, nectar, and pollen.

reproductive biology

Maintains territories by chasing intruders and singing from high perches. Courtship involves male chasing female in flight, landing next to her, and fanning tail. Three or four white eggs are laid in purse-shaped nest with slit entrance at the side. Female alone incubates for 12 days; both sexes then feed young in nest for two weeks. Breeding season tied to fruiting period of mistletoes, September–April.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

Spreads mistletoes.


Scarlet-backed flowerpecker

Dicaeum cruentatum

taxonomy

Certhia cruentata Linnaeus, 1758, Bengal (India). Seven subspecies.

other common names

English: Pryer's flowerpecker; French: Dicée à dos rouge; German: Scharlachmistelfresser; Spanish: Pica Flor de Lomo Carmín.

physical characteristics

3.5 in (8.9 cm); 0.19–0.28 oz (5.5–8 g). Red stripe from fore-head to base of tail; blue-black wings and tail; and whitish belly.

distribution

D. c. batuense: Mentawai Islands; D. c. cruentatum: northeast India to southern China, eastern Thailand, Indochina, Sumatra, and Riau Archipelago; D. c. ignitum: peninsular Malaysia; D. c. niasense: Nias Island; D. c. nigrimentum: Borneo; D. c. simalurense: Simeulue Island; D. c. sumatranum: Sumatra and surrounding islands.

habitat

Forests, secondary growth, orchards, plantations, and gardens up to 3,300 ft (1,000 m) mostly, but attains more than 6,900 ft (2,100 m) in Nepal.

behavior

Strong flier, aggressive and restless in treetops but occasionally feeds low in bushes; hawks for insects. Moves up and down mountains with the seasons.

feeding ecology and diet

Fruits, especially of mistletoes, figs, berries, seeds, nectar, spiders, and insects.

reproductive biology

Two to four gray eggs laid in tiny oval pouch, made by both sexes, of grass and suspended 6.6–49 ft (2–15 m) up in tree; entrance near top sometimes has porch.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in most of range but rare in Bhutan and Nepal.

significance to humans

None known.


Fan-tailed berrypecker

Melanocharis versteri

taxonomy

Pristorhamphus versteri Finsch, 1876, New Guinea. Four sub-species.

other common names

French: Piquebaie éventail; German: Fächerschwanz-Beerenpicker; Spanish: Cerezero Cola de Abanico.

physical characteristics

5.5–6 in (14–19 cm). Female larger (wing length (2.6–2.8 in[6.6–7.1 cm]) and heavier (0.56–0.7 oz [16–20 g]) than male (2.32–2.52 in [5.9–6.4 cm]; 0.44–0.53 oz [12.5–15 g]). Whitish

underparts and lateral feathers on distinctively long tail. Brownish black upperparts.

distribution

From 4,500 to 10,800 ft (1,400–3,300 m) up in mountains in New Guinea in both Indonesia (Irian Jaya) and Papua New Guinea. M. v. maculiceps: southeast New Guinea; M. v. meeki: northwest New Guinea, Weyland, and Snow Mountains; M. v. versteri: northwest New Guinea, Vogelkop; M. v. virago: northern and northeast New Guinea.

habitat

Montane forest, tree-fern heaths, and alpine thickets. Sometimes occurs in middle strata of forest but usually keeps to undergrowth.

behavior

Shy, usually solitary or in pairs, and an active feeder. Shows white in tail when flying. Acrobatic. Harsh song; it also utters squeaks and nasal scolding calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Small berries, eaten whole, and insects. Sometimes hover-gleans to feed.

reproductive biology

Nest large in relation to the bird's size. A solid deep cup, 3 in (8 cm) across and 4 in (10 cm) high, placed in the fork of a branch, and well-camouflaged.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Resources

Books

Beehler, B. M., T. K. Pratt, and D. A. Zimmerman. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

BirdLife International. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.

Cheke, R. A., C. F. Mann, and R. Allen. Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters, and Sugarbirds of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Rand, A. L., and E. T. Gilliard. Handbook of New Guinea Birds. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Robert Alexander Cheke, PhD

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