The Fiery-tailed Awlbill (Avocettula recurvirostris) is a small hummingbird found in sub-Saharan Africa. With its distinctive curved bill and brilliant iridescent plumage, this species has captivated ornithologists and bird enthusiasts alike.
The Fiery-tailed Awlbill is a tiny bird, measuring just 5-6 cm in length and weighing 2-3 grams. As its name suggests, its most striking feature is its strongly decurved bill which is black on top and red below. This unique bill shape allows the bird to probe into flowers for nectar.
The plumage of the male is iridescent green on the head, back and wings. The throat and breast feathers are a glittering violet-blue while the belly is gray-white. The outer tail feathers are velvety black while the central tail feathers are elongated and deeply forked, measuring up to 5 cm. When the tail is fanned out, the iridescent reddish-orange inner vanes of the feathers create the fiery tail that gives the species its name. The female is slightly duller in coloration than the male. Juveniles resemble adult females but have buffy edges to the plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
The Fiery-tailed Awlbill is found across sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal and Ethiopia south to Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Its habitat is forest and woodland edges, coastal scrub and gardens. It has adapted well to human modified landscapes.
These hummingbirds occur at elevations up to 2000 m in East Africa. They are non-migratory but may make seasonal movements in response to the flowering of favored food plants.
Like all hummingbirds, the Fiery-tailed Awlbill has a fast metabolism and relies on nectar as its main food source. It favors the flowers of plants from the genera Leonotis, Halleria, Aloe, Erythrina, Kniphofia and others. It uses its specialized bill to probe into tubular flowers for nectar.
The awlbill also hawks small insects including ants, bees and flies which provide essential protein. The proportion of insects in the diet increases during the breeding season to satisfy the protein requirements of the growing chicks.
The Fiery-tailed Awlbill is territorial and males defend flowering bushes and trees as feeding territories using chasing flights and aggressive displays. Their metallic chipping call is given frequently during aerial pursuits.
Despite their small size, these hummingbirds are feisty and will see off much larger birds that encroach on their territories. They have been observed dive bombing species as large as the Silvery-cheeked Hornbill.
The breeding season of the Fiery-tailed Awlbill coincides with the rainy season which stimulates flowering of food plants. In East Africa, breeding occurs in November-December while West African populations breed in June-August.
The tiny cup-shaped nest is constructed of plant down bound with spider silk on a thin branch or vine. Two tiny white eggs are laid and incubated by the female alone for 14-16 days. The chicks fledge in about 18-23 days. Not much else is known about the reproductive habits of this species and more research is required.
The Fiery-tailed Awlbill has a wide distribution across Africa and is not currently considered threatened. The IUCN Red List classifies it as a species of Least Concern.
However, habitat destruction is a potential threat as woodlands are cleared for agriculture. The species has adapted fairly well to human settlements and gardens with suitable flowers. Promoting gardens with native nectar plants can help conserve these beautiful hummingbirds.
– The genus name Avocettula refers to the resemblance of the awlbill’s curved bill to that of avocets (Recurvirostridae family).
– The tail feathers produce a buzzing sound during courtship flights. Local names like ‘kettle-bill’ in South Africa refer to this buzzing.
– The long tail feathers hamper take off from a standing start. These hummingbirds use an elevated perch to drop down into flight.
– Fiery-tailed Awlbills utilize a technique called trap-lining to maximize nectar intake. Individual birds regularly visit favorite flowers in a repeated sequence or circuit.
– They enter torpor (a state of lowered body temperature and metabolism) at night to conserve energy.
In summary, the Fiery-tailed Awlbill is a fascinating African hummingbird adapted to procuring nectar from tubular flowers with its specialized bill. Its small size, irascible behavior and amazing iridescent plumage make this species a favorite among birdwatchers. More research on the behavior and ecology of these hummingbirds is required to fully understand this dazzling bird. With habitat conservation, the Fiery-tailed Awlbill will continue to adorn Africa’s woodlands and gardens.