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Bird in the Spotlight: Gurney’s Sugarbird

6 March, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Gurney’s Sugarbird at Marakele National Park, South Africa. Photo by Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Gurney’s Sugarbird (Promerops gurneyi) is one of two species of sugarbirds and can be found in southeastern Africa’s montane grasslands and protea woodlands. These long-tailed, slender birds are patterned with subtle gray, a rusty terracotta brown chest and cap, and vibrant yellow undertail coverts. This species is closely associated with Silver Sugarbush (Protea roupelliae) woodlands where it feeds on nectar and facilitates the plant’s pollination. Their specially adapted long bills and brush-tipped tongues allow them to probe the flowers and extract nectar, and during this process, pollen gets stuck to the face of the bird. Gurney’s Sugarbirds also move into grassland areas and forest edges to forage on nectar of native aloe, red-hot-pokers, bugle lilies, and tree fuchsia. This species has a patchy distribution from South Africa’s eastern cape north along the eastern escarpment into Zimbabwe, with the heart of their range being in the Drakensberg Mountains along the border of Lesotho and South Africa. During the nonbreeding season, they will migrate to lower elevations where they find nectar sources in suburban gardens and parks, such as cultivated proteas and bottlebrushes. Gurney’s Sugarbirds are loud and chattery, and they fiercely guard their coveted protea flowers from others of the same species and sunbirds that might want a sip of nectar. During the breeding season, the male guards the territory while the female constructs a neat, cup-shaped nest in a protea tree and lines it with fluffy protea seeds, making the sugarbirds not only pollinators but also seed dispersers. The intricate dance between sugarbird and protea is a beautiful example of species coevolving in a harsh and dynamic landscape. This also makes the Gurney’s Sugarbird particularly vulnerable to destruction of its habitat for silviculture plantations of pine and gum trees, as well as the harvesting of protea for fuel.

Typical habitat of the Gurney’s Sugarbird in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa that includes Silver Sugarbush (Protea roupelliae) sparsely dotted across montane grasslands. Photo by yakovlev.alexey from Moscow, Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.



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