Male sunbird feeding chicks at nest
Olive-backed sunbirds build their sock-like nests with entwined grass, spider web and fibrous plant material. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

How one clever little sunbird kept its brood safe

For those living in the tropical north of Australia, the approach of Christmas is also a reminder of the coming cyclone season.

In an average year 10-13 cyclones will form off the country’s tropical coastline from December to April. And according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2017-18 will be an ‘average year’.

The majority of those storms will blow themselves out while still at sea, but typically at least four will cross the Australian coast in a season.

Dangerous weather

The destructive power of these dangerous weather systems is well known to those who live in coastal Far North Queensland. But while we humans can generally ‘hunker down’ and ride them out, I am often asked ‘what happens to the birds?’

According to Birdlife Australia, the birds do much the same as us – except they probably know well before we do when the big storms are coming, and head inland to safety. (There is some evidence that birds respond to drops in pressure and therefore seek shelter before the storm hits.)

Holding on tight

“They’re going to find some dense shrubs and they’ll be going into trees close to trunks and holding on tight,” Dr Holly Parsons told the ABC. “They tend to avoid high trees during lightning storms.”

Some will be killed or injured in a bad storm, but Dr Parsons says most will “cope ok”.

Passerines (perching birds) like magpies, currawongs and fairy-wrens do well because their feet are designed to have three toes forward and three toes back to grip on to branches.

They also have a tendon in their legs that locks down tight to help them hold on.

The clever sunbird

The best survival story I’ve heard for a while demonstrated how a female olive-backed sunbird protected her brood during a major blow.

Cairns mate and keen birdo, Norton (Norty) Gill had sunbirds nesting under an eve of his holiday house and he watched how the female (they do all the construction) set about protecting her eggs until the storm subsided.

Dangling abode

First, she stitched up the nest entrance, then she added some entwined grass and fibre to the bottom of the dangling abode, pulled it up and secured the structure parallel to the ceiling

When the storm passed, she returned, released the tie-off and let the nest down, opened the entrance and settled back on her eggs.

Two chicks fledged and apparently made it safely through the gauntlet of predatory butcher birds.

©Natural Images 2017


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


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