Australian Honeyeaters: Meliphagidae

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Australian honeyeaters differ with respect to their outward appearance. They are mostly small birds with some tiny species and others as large as jays. They are longish birds with long, pointed wings, strong legs and feet, sharp claws, and rather long, down-curved and sharply-pointed bills (which vary from this basic shape, based on diet differences). They are usually dull colored, mostly greenish, olive, or brown. The smaller species often have yellow on their under parts. Some of the smaller species are black and white, while some of the larger species are black, gray, dark green, or streaked brown. Most Australian honeyeaters have colored bare skin around the eyes; a somewhat swollen mouth area; fancy wattles (skin that hangs from the throat); and a head that is bald. Such characteristics often change in color as they get older or seasonally as they breed.

In most species, the bill and legs are easily noticed due to their bright color. The bill varies in shape and size, sometimes being short and straight, slightly decurved, or quite long and markedly decurved. All birds have a unique tongue structure, being deeply notched and finely edged with bristles at the tip, forming four parallel brushes. Some of the juveniles have plumage (feathers) that differs greatly from adults, but most differences are small. Adults are 3 to 20 inches (7 to 50 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.25 and 7.0 ounces (7 and 200 grams).


Australian honeyeaters are found throughout Australia (except for dense grasslands without trees and shrubs), New Guinea, Melanesia, Moluccas, and Lesser Sundas, west to Bali, Micronesia, New Caledonia, and New Zealand; through Polynesia to the Hawaiian Islands. Two species occur in southern Africa.


Australian honeyeaters inhabit tropical, subtropical, and temperate (mild) rainforests, eucalyptus (yoo-kah-LIP-tus) forests (tall, aromatic trees), monsoonal forests, woodlands that contain eucalyptus, casuarinas (trees with needle-shaped leaves that form whorls on short branches), native pines, and acacias (uh-KAY-shuhz; flowering trees). They can also be found in semi-arid woodlands and scrublands, desert shrub-steppes, coastal and upland heathlands (shrubby uncultivated land), and parks and gardens.


All Australian honeyeaters eat nectar and invertebrates (animals without a backbone), especially insects. They regularly fly to native and exotic flowers. They also eat honeydew (a sticky substance from bugs, called lerp) and sap from trees. Smaller sized Australian honeyeaters consume tiny insects captured in flight, as well as caterpillars and beetles taken from foliage. Species with extra-strong bills probe beneath bark for insects and honeydew. Infrequently eaten foods are spiders, crustaceans (hard-shelled creatures), and small lizards. Some of the largest species eat eggs and nestlings (young birds unable to leave the nest) of other birds. In wetter climates, fruits are a major part of the diet.


They are active birds, sometimes noisy and aggressive. Australian honeyeaters are seldom found alone, but often seen in family groups or loose flocks. Species that migrate usually occur in large flocks. Some species that inhabit arid and semi-arid habitats are nomadic as they regularly move to different locations. When feeding on large nectar supplies, many birds will come together in noisy groups that chase each other. Species of larger sizes will often dominate smaller birds, taking over better feeding spots. They are often seen probing among flowers for nectar. During breeding and molting (the phase after breeding), the birds are often quiet and difficult to find due to little activity.

Their songs and calls range from beautiful to harsh. Species of smaller sizes have twittering, musical songs, and whistling calls. Medium-sized birds have many different songs and calls. Larger birds emit harsh cackling and coughing calls.

Most Australian honeyeaters are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; having one mate), although polygamy (puh-LIH-guh-mee; having more than one mate) and a mixed mating system also occurs. It is thought that about one-third of the species are cooperative breeders, their roles ranging from occasional helpers to members of complicated colonies. Most of the birds have long breeding seasons that last for six or more months. Breeding occurs most frequently in late winter to late spring (August to October).

Nests are built from low bushes nearly on the ground to the tops of tall trees. Most nests are located in forks of trees or suspended from foliage. The woven nests are made of spider webs, animal hair, plant down, wool, artificial materials, feathers, and human hair. Some species build hollow nests.

Females lay eggs that range in color from white to pale pink or buff, with purple, red, brown, or black spots and blotches. The average number of eggs is two, but some species lay only one egg. Other species lay up to three or four eggs. The female does most of the incubation (process of sitting on and warming the eggs), which usually lasts from twelve to seventeen days. Both parents feed the young, which usually consists of insects but can be nectar in some species. The fledgling period (the time it takes for a bird to grow feathers necessary to fly) ranges from eleven to twenty days, but can be as long as thirty-two days in the hollow-nesting species.


People often find Australian honeyeaters in parks and gardens. A few species are regarded as pests to fruit farmers. People hunt some of the larger species for food. The birds regularly scatter seeds throughout the forest, helping to maintain forest growth. They also help to pollinate many native plants.


Of the various species of Australian honeyeaters, one species and four subspecies are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction; two species are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; two species and one subspecies are Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; and five species are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. There is not much information on many Indonesian species. Many species have declined in numbers due to the clearing of forests and woodlands for farming and habitation by humans and to the destruction of their habitat in other ways.


Physical characteristics: Bishop's oos have a smoky black neck, back, and underparts with narrow white shaft lines on the feathers. The wings and tail are black. Males have a long, graduated tail with yellow feathers on the wing, neck, and tail coverts (small feathers around quill base). At the ear coverts, undertail, and axillary are clumps of golden feathers. They are about 12 inches (31 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: Bishop's oos are found on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.

Habitat: They inhabit dense rainforests in mountains.

Diet: They eat nectar from lobelia flowers (plants with two-lipped blue, red, or white flowers), but also eat insects from the forest's upper canopy.

Behavior and reproduction: Bishop's oos are curious birds, but are also timid. They have a very loud call "owow, owow-ow." The long tail and yellow feathers on the male's wing, neck, and tail coverts are used to attract females. Reproductive activities are not known, other than it is believed that they build hollow nests.

Bishop's oos and people: Native Hawaiians have caught Bishop's oos for their yellow plumes, which were used for ceremonial cloaks.

Conservation status: Bishop's oo is considered Critically Endangered. ∎


Physical characteristics: Cape sugarbirds have rufous (reddish) head and breast. They have a distinctive long bill and long, brownish tail feathers. The chin is white with a moustache-looking dark streak. The abdomen is whitish, vent (waste opening) yellow. Females are 9.5 to 11.5 inches (24 to 29 centimeters) long, and males are 14.5 to 17.0 inches (37 to 44 centimeters) long, including the long tail. Both weigh about 1.5 ounces (42 grams).

Geographic range: Cape sugarbirds are found in South Cape Province, South Africa.

Habitat: Their habitat includes scrublands of the Western Cape area of South Africa. The scrubs consist generally of shrubs that resemble heaths (low evergreen shrubs) with hard leaves.

Diet: Their diet consists of nectar and insects captured in flight or picked from plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Cape sugarbirds are usually found alone or in pairs, but occasionally in small flocks. In order to attract females, males fly with both wings clapped together and keep their tail held high. Both sexes defend against other sugarbirds and sunbirds. Their song is a jumble of unpleasant notes.

They breed from February to August, depending mostly on when local vegetation flowers. A deep cup-shaped nest is placed in a bush or low tree. It is constructed from grass and twigs, and lined with plant down. Females lay buff to reddish eggs with brown spots, streaks, and blotches.

Cape sugarbirds and people: Cape sugarbirds are not known to have a special significance to people.

Conservation status: These birds are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Striped honeyeaters are about 8.5 inches (22 centimeters) long and weigh about 1.4 ounces (40 grams). Their cheeks and the area from the forehead to the nape (back part of the neck) is dark with white stripes. Their underparts are a pinkish buff, and upperparts and tail are grayish.

Geographic range: The birds are located in eastern Australia, from mid-north Queensland to northern Victoria and west to the York Peninsula, especially inland from the Great Dividing Range.

Habitat: They live in riparian (along the riverbank) woodlands with casuarina (a type of tree) and mallee (shrubby eucalyptus) and other semiarid woodlands with eucalyptus, acacia, and native pine.

Diet: Striped honeyeaters eat nectar from eucalyptus, mistletoes, and other plants, and sometimes eat fruits and seeds. They also occasionally eat insects and spiders that they capture from foliage and tree bark or that they catch in the air.

Behavior and reproduction: Striped honeyeaters are usually found in pairs or small groups. They sound an attractive whistling song. The generally do not migrate, but do show local movements. The species breeds from August to January. Nests are suspended off of drooping foliage. They tend to like to build nests near gray butcherbird nests. Females lay from two to five eggs, with three being average. Both parents incubate the eggs. After hatching, both parents feed the young, but sometimes have helpers feed the chicks. The time it takes to hatch the eggs is sixteen to seventeen days, while the fledgling period is also sixteen to seventeen days.

Striped honeyeaters and people: People sometimes regard them as pests in orchards.

Conservation status: Striped honeyeaters are not threatened. ∎



del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal, Jose Cabot, et al., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.

Dickinson, Edward C., ed. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Harrison, Colin James Oliver. Birds of the World. London and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

Perrins, Christopher M., and Alex L. A. Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

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Australian Honeyeaters: Meliphagidae

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Australian Honeyeaters: Meliphagidae