Ian’s Bird of the Week – Slaty Flowerpiercers (and Hummingbirds) ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 12/02/10
Last week’s hummingbirds were popular so here, in a roundabout way, are some more. Flowers often have complex relationships with the animals (eg birds, moths) with which they interact and use them for pollination and distribution of seeds. Mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationships may develop, such as exchange of nectar for pollination, that result in structural correspondences between species of flowers and animals, in particular the length of flower tubes and the length of the bills of hummingbirds and the probosces of months.
These relationships may exclude other species and this leads to cheating in various ways, either directly or indirectly. Flowerpiercers, such as the Slaty Flowerpiercer found in Costa Rica and named after the male of the species, first photo, cheat by using their specially adapted bills to bite through the flower tube to get at the nectar without helping with pollination. The female in the second photo shows how its done with the flower of a ginger plant.
Some short-billed Hummingbirds do the same thing and stab the flower tube. Others, however, cheat indirectly and take advantage of the holes left by the flowerpiercers to sip the nectar. The tiny male Volcano Hummingbird (8cm/3.1in 2.5g) in the third photo is doing just that. Totally dwarfed by the ginger flower, it is hovering nearby and hasn’t had to land on the flower to stab it. The Volcano Hummingbird, incidentally, is a very close relative of the Scintillant Hummingbird of last week but has a violet rather than an orange gorget and is found, as its name suggests, at much higher altitudes. The vertical ranges of the two species just overlap at the 2,200m/7,200ft altitude of San Gerardo de Dota, the valley of the Quetzals.
The much larger male White-throated Mountain-gem (11cm/4in 6.2g) in the fourth photo has actually landed on the ginger flower, so whether it has stabbed the flower or is also taking advantage of the Flowerpiercers isn’t obvious. They’re clearly versatile: the fifth photo shows another male feeding on an alien, almost petal-less, Bottlebrush in San Gerardo de Dota, the closest one is likely to get to an Australian Hummingbird!
On the website, I’m getting towards the end of adding Costa Rican birds and have added quite a variety. You might like to check out Recent Additions: http://www.birdway.com.au/index.htm#updates .
Now, Ian, how did you know I was just reading about the Flowerpiercers this week? Thanks for the beautiful photos and article about these birds.
Could it be that the flowerpiercers are not cheating, but just doing as they were designed to do. By poking those holes they are not only getting a drink but allowing the little guys to have access also to a meal of nectar. Such forethought!
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3 KJV)
While working on the Hummingbird and the Tanager pages, the Flowerpiercer again caught my eye like the Sword-billed Hummingbird had from Michael Woodruff photos. If too many of the hummers had those long beaks, there would be a lot of sore necks. So by having the flowerpiercers pierce a hole nearer to the nectar, there are many hummers that get to have shorter beaks and less neck aches!
The common name refers to their habit of piercing the base of flowers to access nectar that otherwise would be out of reach. This is done with their highly modified bills, although this is greatly reduced in the Bluish Flowerpiercer, which has an almost “normal” bill. Most flowerpiercers are restricted to highlands, especially the Andes, in South America, but two species occur in Central America.