The Golden-tailed Starfrontlet (Coeligena helianthea) is a species of hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its vibrant plumage and energetic flight, this petite bird has captivated ornithologists and birdwatchers alike.
The golden-tailed starfrontlet is a relatively small hummingbird, measuring only about 10-12 cm in length and weighing 5-7 grams. As its name suggests, its most striking feature is its forked tail which has elongated feathers forming pointed streamers. These tail feathers have a glittery golden-bronze coloration.
The male starfrontlet has an iridescent turquoise crown and throat, with a white diagonal stripe behind its eyes. Its belly is white, while its back and wings are a bronzy green. The female is similar but less vibrantly colored, with a paler whitish belly and greenish crown. Both sexes have a short dark bill and dark legs. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffy edges to their plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
The golden-tailed starfrontlet is endemic to a small region of the Andes in South America. Its range extends from central Colombia to northern Peru, between elevations of 2500-4000 meters.
This species inhabits montane forest and scrubland habitats. It occurs in areas with plenty of flowering plants and a rugged topography, including steep hillsides, ravines, and rocky outcrops. Dense vegetation like thickets of shrubs and small trees provide protected nesting sites. Proximity to water sources is also important.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the golden-tailed starfrontlet feeds on nectar from blooming flowers and small arthropods. Its long, slender bill is perfectly adapted for reaching inside flowers and accessing nectar.
This species favors flowers with red or orange blossoms that produce ample nectar, such as fuchsias, lilies, and other tubular flowers. The starfrontlet also hawks small insects like flies, spiders, and aphids captured in mid-air.
The high-energy demands of hovering flight require that hummingbirds consume 1.5 to 2 times their body weight in nectar each day. They visit hundreds or even thousands of flowers daily, playing an important role as pollinators.
Several unique anatomical and physiological adaptations enable hummingbirds like the golden-tailed starfrontlet to meet their high-energy needs:
– High wingbeat frequency – They can beat their wings up to 70 times per second, allowing precise hovering.
– Reversible shoulder joints – Their shoulder joints can rotate in all directions so their wings can move back and forth as well as up and down.
– Rapid metabolism – At rest, their heart rate can be 500 beats per minute. In flight, it can reach 1200 bpm. Their breathing and metabolism are extremely rapid.
– High body temperature – They have a temperature of over 100°F, with specialized proteins that allow their muscles to operate at these high temperatures required for sustained vibrating motion.
– Sweet taste receptor – They have a forked tongue with sugary taste receptors ideal for nectar-feeding.
– Glycolytic muscles – Their primary flight muscles use carbohydrates as their energy source instead of lipids like other birds. This powers their unique metabolic demands.
Life Cycle and Reproduction
The breeding season for golden-tailed starfrontlets varies across their range, typically coinciding with peaks in flower availability. Courtship displays involve aerial chases and dives by the male as he repeatedly vocalizes to attract a mate.
The female constructs a tiny cup-shaped nest out of plant down and spider webs, attached to a vertical branch or fern frond. She lays just two tiny white eggs. After about 16-19 days of incubation, the eggs hatch and the chicks are fed regurgitated nectar and insects by the female. The young fledge in another 20-26 days.
Threats and Conservation Status
Habitat loss from deforestation poses the greatest threat to golden-tailed starfrontlet populations. Climate change and reduced flower availability may also impact them. Nevertheless, this species remains relatively widespread across its range.
The golden-tailed starfrontlet is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Parts of its range are protected within national parks and reserves. Further protection of Andean cloud forests will help ensure the conservation of this flashy little hummingbird and its unique ecological niche.
Native Andean cultures have traditionally associated hummingbirds with joy and celebration due to their energetic disposition. The golden-tailed starfrontlet is a charismatic species that evokes fascination over its minute size yet almost supernatural vigor and speed.
This bird has served as a powerful motif in visual arts, music, jewelry, and more. Images of the starfrontlet have graced petroglyphs, pottery, textiles, and other crafts made by Indigenous cultures in Colombia and Peru for centuries. The starfrontlet’s radiant plumage and vitality have inspired celebratory dance rituals among many groups as well.
For birders worldwide, a glimpse of a golden-tailed starfrontlet is a magical experience. Its glittering tail feathers and acrobatic flight bring such dynamism to otherwise bleak and rugged landscapes. As flagships for the biodiversity of their delicate cloud forest ecosystems, these colorful hummingbirds motivate greater appreciation and conservation of Andean habitats. Their future relies on protecting remaining old-growth forests and flowering plants across their range. With appropriate habitat conservation, the unique ecology and heritage symbolized by the golden-tailed starfrontlet will endure.