Golden-winged sunbird

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Golden-winged sunbird
Golden-winged Sunbird (Drepanorhynchus reichenowi) -Kenya.jpg
A male in breeding plumage in Kenya feeding on Leonotis nectar
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Nectariniidae
Genus: Drepanorhynchus
Fischer & Reichenow, 1884
Species: D. reichenowi
Binomial name
Drepanorhynchus reichenowi
(Fischer, 1884)
  • D. r. reichenowi
  • D. r. lathburyi
  • D. r. shellyae
  • Nectarinia reichenowi

The golden-winged sunbird (Drepanorhynchus reichenowi) is a species of bird in the family Nectariniidae. Three subspecies are recognised. It is found in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.


The male golden-winged sunbird is about 9 in (23 cm) long and the female is about 6 in (15 cm) long, the male having long central tail feathers. Yellow-edged feathers in the wings and tail are key identification pointers in all plumages of both the male and female. Body feathers of the male in breeding condition are a conspicuous metallic reddish-copper colour, which are mostly replaced by dull-black feathers in the non-breeding condition. The underparts of the male are brownish-black. The female is olive above and yellowish below. Immature are similar to females, except their underparts are darker.[2]


German naturalist Gustav Fischer described the golden-winged sunbird in 1884, its species name honouring Anton Reichenow. It is classified as the only species in the genus Drepanorhynchus[3] or sometimes in the genus Nectarinia.

Three subspecies are recognised. The nominate subspecies is found in southern and western Uganda into Kenya (including Mt Kilimanjaro) and Tanzania, subspecies lathburyi is smaller and its plumage has a more red-metallic sheen and is found in more montane regions of Kenya from 1700 to 2300 m, and subspecies shellyae is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo above 2100 m. Females of this subspecies have a grey rather than green crown.[3]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The golden-winged sunbird is found in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, between altitudes of 1170 and 2300 m. It is found in forest verges and clearings, in cultivated areas, bamboo forest and tall grassland. The species is locally nomadic, following food supply.[3]



Golden-winged sunbirds consume the nectar from flowers of the mint Leonotis nepetifolia flowers as their main food source, but they also feed infrequently on other flower species:[4] Aloe graminicola and Leonotis mollissima during the breeding season,[5] and also Crotalaria species including C. agatiflora, Erythrina abyssinica, Fuchsia species, Ipomoea batatas, Jacaranda mimosifolia, Phragmanthera dschallensis and other pea species. The golden-winged sunbird also eats insects such as beetles, flies, ants, bees and wasps and various larvae.[3]

Territorial birds, golden-winged sunbirds defend patches of Leonotis nepetifolia flowers outside the breeding season in Kenya. This species flowers in July when little else is in flower.[5] The concept of economic defendability, in which the defence of a resource has costs (such as energy expenditure and risk of injury) and benefits (priority access to the resource), explains the territorial behavior that golden-winged sunbirds exhibit.[6]

Painting showing male and female by Keulemans, 1884

Field studies in Kenya show that the sunbirds live in the highland areas in a geographical distribution similar to that of Leonotis.[4] They are active during the daytime and spend their time sitting on perches, fighting for territorial defence, or foraging for nectar.[4] The energetic costs of each activity the sunbirds exhibit during the day has been calculated. When the daily costs are compared to the extra nectar gained by defending a territory, territorial birds make a net energetic profit.[7] Field studies show that territorial birds need to spend less time per day foraging to meet their daily energy requirements when the flowers contain more nectar. By defending a territory a bird excludes other nectar consumers and, therefore, increases the amount of nectar available in each flower. Sunbirds satisfy their energy demands more rapidly, saving foraging time and allowing them to spend the spare time sitting on perches, which is less energetically expensive than foraging. This saving has to be weighed against the cost of defence, so if there is more than enough nectar in the flowers then it is easier just to share the nectar with other birds.[4] When there is a minimal amount of nectar, possibly due to a bad season, the birds increase their territoriality, except when the nectar levels are too low to support cost of defence.[5]

Usually territories involve only a single resident individual. Occasionally, a female can coexist with a male on a large territory and participate in its defence. Such sharing may relate to a complex prolonged pattern of pair formation. Feeding territories may be defended by all age and sex classes of the golden-winged sunbirds, including juveniles. The birds defend their territories both intra-specifically and inter-specifically against all sunbird species in the area. The success of the defence depends in part on the dominance relationships of the intruding individual, where persistent individuals of larger bird species such as the bronzy sunbird may feed successfully. Territory sizes vary greatly, ranging from 6.7 to 2300 m2, but each territory contains about the same number of flowers.[4]

Sometimes, when a female golden-winged sunbird intrudes on a bronzy sunbird's territory, it performs a begging display by quivering its wings and spreading its tail. This causes the bronzy sunbird to tolerate the foraging of the golden-winged sunbird in its territory. Female sunbirds spread their feet apart on the stalk of a Leonotis plant and turn their bodies 90° to the stalk and fan their tail feathers to varying degrees.[8]


The golden-winged sunbird has a large range and its total population has not been estimated; however, it is not thought to be endangered and it is evaluated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.[1]


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2012). "Nectarinia reichenowi". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 16 July 2012. 
  2. ^ Williams, John G; Arlot, Norman (1980). "Golden-winged Sunbird". A Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. p. 338. ISBN 0002191792. 
  3. ^ a b c d Clive F. Mann; Robert A. Cheke (2010). Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World. A&C Black. pp. 258–59. ISBN 140813568X. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Gill, Frank; Larry Wolf (1975). "Economics of Feeding territoriality in the Golden-winged Sunbird". Ecology. 56 (2): 333–345. JSTOR 1934964. doi:10.2307/1934964. 
  5. ^ a b c Gill, Frank; Larry Wolf (July 1979). "Nectar Loss by Golden-winged Sunbirds to Competitors". The Auk. 96 (3): 448–461. JSTOR 4085541. 
  6. ^ Brown, Jerram (June 1964). "The evolution of diversity in Avian territorial Systems". The Wilson Bulletin. 76 (2): 160–169. JSTOR 4159278. 
  7. ^ Schoener, Thomas (May 1983). "Simple Models of Optimal feeding-Territory Size: A Reconciliation". The American Naturalist. 121 (5): 608–629. JSTOR 2460867. doi:10.1086/284090. 
  8. ^ Lott, Dale (1991). "Bronzy Sunbirds Tolerate Intrusion on Foraging Territories by Female Golden-winged Sunbirds That Perform "Begging" Display". Journal of Field Ornithology. 62 (4): 492–496. JSTOR 20065830.