Honeysuckers are birds that have adopted the manner of living of the butterfly, and a charming mode of life it is. To flit about in the sunshine and drink sweet draughts of the nectar that lies hidden away at the base of the petals of flowers is indeed an idyllic existence.
The sunbird, as the honeysucker is frequently called, is provided with a curved beak and a long tubular tongue to enable it the better to rob cup-like blossoms of their honey. The bird must perforce be very small and light, or it would find it impossible to reach the nectar of many flowers. As a matter of fact, it is almost as light as air, so is able to support itself on one flower when drinking honey from another. Sometimes, if no perch be available, the little honeysucker will hover in the air on rapidly vibrating wings and thus extract the sweets from a flower. In this attitude it looks very like a butterfly. I may here mention that sunbirds do not live exclusively upon honey: they vary this diet with minute insects which they pick off flowers and leaves.
Honeysuckers are frequently called humming-birds by Anglo-Indians. This is not correct. Hummingbirds are confined to the New World, and are smaller and more ethereal than our little honeysuckers, but their methods of feeding are so similar that the mistake is a pardonable one.
As every one knows, butterflies and bees, in return for the honey they receive, render service to the flowers by carrying the pollen from the stamen of one to the stigma of the other and thus bring about cross-fertilisation, which most botanists believe to be essential to the well-being of a species. Honeysuckers probably perform a similar service, for, as they flit from flower to flower, their little heads may be seen to be well dusted with yellow pollen.
Sunbirds are found all over India, but they are most plentiful in the South, being essentially tropical birds; they are merely summer visitors to the Punjab; when the short, cold winter days come, they leave that province and betake themselves to some milder clime.
Three species may be seen in our Madras gardens -: Loten's, the purple, and the yellow honeysucker.
Of the cocks of the first and second species (Arachnechthra lotenia and A. asiatica) it may perhaps be said that they are clothed in purple and fine linen, for their plumage is a deep, rich purple with a sheen and a gloss like that on a brand-new silk hat. Sometimes the bird looks black, at others green, and more frequently mauve, according to the intensity of the light and the angle at which the sun's rays fall upon it. It is not very easy to distinguish between these two sunbirds unless specimens are held in the hand, when the violet-black abdomen of the purple species can be easily distinguished from the snuff-brown lower parts of Loten's. However, the latter has a much longer and stouter beak, and is very abundant in Madras, while the purple bird is comparatively rare, so that the Madrassi is fairly safe in setting down all the purple birds he sees as Loten's honeysuckers. If, however, he espies a purple sunbird, with an unusually short bill, a bird that sings like a canary, he may be certain that that particular one is A. asiatica. If the cock Loten's sunbird is clothed in purple and fine linen, that of the yellow species (A. zeylonica) may be said to be arrayed in a coat of many colours, each of which is so beautiful as to defy imitation by the painter. There is a patch on the crown which appears metallic lilac in some lights and emerald-green in others. His neck and upper back are dull crimson, the lower back, chin, and throat are brilliant metallic purple. The tail and wing feathers are dark brown. There is a maroon collar below the throat, and the plumage from this collar downwards is bright yellow. Verily, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
The hens of all three species are homely-looking birds, difficult to distinguish one from the other. The upper plumage of each is dingy brown and the lower parts dull yellow. Many ornithologists declare that sexual dimorphism, such as is here displayed, is due to the greater need of the hen for protection when sitting on the eggs. These people allege that if the hens of brightly plumaged species were as showy as the cocks, they would be conspicuous objects when brooding, and so fall easy victims to birds of prey. This is a theory typical of the arm-chair naturalist, or of him who studies nature through the grimy panes of a museum window. Like all such theories, it is tempting at first sight, but is untenable because it fails to take cognisance of facts with which every field-naturalist should be acquainted. In the first place, birds of prey rarely attack stationary objects : they look out for moving quarry. Secondly, the cock of many species, such as the paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), although he is far more showy than the hen, sits on the eggs in the open nest quite as much as she does. In this case what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; if she needs protective colouring, so does he. It is true that the cock sunbird never takes a turn on the nest; he is not a family man, but a gay young spark, who goes about bravely attired, with his hand upon the handle of his sword, ready to draw it upon the least provocation. A more pugnacious little bird does not exist. While the hen is laboriously building the wonderful little nest, he spends his time in drinking and revelry, with an occasional visit to the growing nursery to criticise its construction. Hence it might seem that, in the case of the sunbird, the above-mentioned explanation of the sexual dimorphism is the true one. Unfortunately, the nest is not an open one, but a little mango-shaped structure with an entrance at the side, so that the hen when sitting in it is not visible from above. In this case, therefore, as in so many others, we must seek a new explanation of this difference in the appearance of the cocks and hens. The nest is in shape and size like a mango. It hangs down from the end of a branch, or any other convenient object. It is composed of dried grass, leaves, cocoons, bits of paper, and any kind of rubbish, held together by means of cobweb and some glutinous substance. There is an entrance at the side, over which is a little porch that serves to keep out rain and sun, but this porch is seen in every nest, even when the bird builds, as it very frequently does, in a verandah. A sunbird recently made its nest in the verandah of a friend of mine; the latter came to me and expressed his contempt for the intellect of the little architect, since she had been fool enough to construct a porch, although the nest was built under cover. He forgot that the building of nests is largely an instinctive act, that each bird builds on a fixed plan, learned by it in " the school of the woods."
The nest is cosily lined with cotton down. No attempt is made to conceal it; nevertheless it frequently escapes the notice of human beings, because it does not look like a nest; one is apt to mistake it for a mass of dried grass and rubbish that has become caught in a branch. A sunbird in my compound completely covered her nest with the paper shavings that had once formed the packing for a tin of biscuits. The khansamah, when opening the tin, had, after the manner of his kind, pitched the shavings out of the window of the cookhouse.
It is doubtful whether predacious creatures mistake the sunbird's nest for a mass of rubbish; but it is so well placed that they cannot get at it. It is invariably situated sufficiently far above the ground to be out of reach of a four-legged animal; it hangs from an outstanding branch so that no crow or kite can get a foothold anywhere near it, and the squirrel who ventured to trust himself on to the nest would, I believe, look very foolish when attacked by the owners.
As is usually the case with birds that build covered nests, the hen is not at all shy. If her nursery happens to be in a verandah, she will sit in it with her head out of the window, and watch with interest the owners of the bungalow taking afternoon tea three feet below her.