Roots 'n' Shoots: Sunbirds & Spiderwebs - Something Special

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sunbirds & Spiderwebs - Something Special

Whitebellied Sunbird Male
Nectarinia talatala

We have a few residential sunbirds in the neighbourhood - not the very flashy ones like those in the fynbos areas of South Africa, but none the less gorgeous little birdies.

The Whitebellied sunbird, Nectarinia talatala is a common sight for those living close to bushveld towards the northern parts of southern Africa. It is a smaller sunbird about 11 cm and the males have metallic bottle green upper backs and heads, with a purple band that separates the white belly. Colourful males aside, this article features the females, which are often overlooked because of their pale colourations.

Whitebellied Sunbird Female
Nectarinia talatala

We have a Bird of Paradise (Sterlitzea spp.) plant in the centre of the vegetable garden, which houses a large collection of hedgehog and garbage line spiders (see my Spider Biocontrol Post). These make up the front line of my garden defence against pestilences. However the female spiders laid their eggs in the webs and during the course of winter most adults are either eaten (by bulbuls) or succumb to the cooler temperatures. The egg casings stay safe until spring and hatch out to thousands of little spindly spiderlings. Before the garden turned into a spider nursery this year, we observed some interesting behaviour from the sunbird females...

The tiny birds would swoop into the Sterlitzea plant - at first we assumed it was for the nectar (since we saw the males feeding on the flowers - picture above). Yet the females weren't feeding on the flowers, then we saw them eyeing the spider webs and again we thought that they were eating the spiders (maybe the baby birds need some protein rather than nectar?), but the spider webs were empty. So I sat outside about 2 m away from the Sterlitzea and watched as the female (indifferent to my presence) bounced around inside. There were two photographers snapping up the action - I was outside and another was hiding behind the curtains of a window closer to the action. Here is what we saw:

Whitebellied Sunbird Femlae collecting spiderwebs
Nectarinia talatala

 The female sunbird was collecting spider webs - I could hear her beak make a loud clap every time she gathered up a beakful! This was strange - we have never heard of such behaviour and it lead to some investigating... Many birds collect spider silk from empty webs as part of the nest construction (males and females both partake in this behaviour) seemingly using the material as sticky tape for the structural scaffolding of the nest and to keep other add-ons from falling off. 

We had lots of fun observing the fascinating behaviour and it was truly special to be so close to a very skittish wild bird - here I have another photo of the black-eyed Bulbul female (Pycnonotus barbatus) also making a stop at the Sterlitzea to gather up some spider silk nesting material. 

Blackeyed Bulbul female collecting spiderwebs
Pycnonotus barbatus


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