The Great-billed Hermit Hummingbird (Phaethornis malaris) is a species of hummingbird found in Central and South America. With its very large bill and colorful plumage, it is a distinctive and charismatic member of the hermit hummingbird group.
The Great-billed hermit is a medium-sized hummingbird, measuring around 13-15 cm long and weighing 5-8 grams. As the name suggests, it has an exceptionally large, long bill that measures 20-23 mm, which is used to access nectar from flowers with deep corollas.
The plumage is brightly colored with an iridescent emerald green crown and back. The underparts are white with green sides and a reddish-brown band across the chest. The dark and deeply-forked tail is greenish-black above with white outer tail feathers. The male has a brilliant blue throat patch, while the female’s throat is pale grey. Juveniles resemble the adults, but have buffy edges to the green plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
The Great-billed hermit has a wide distribution across Central and South America. Its range extends from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize and Honduras to Panama, and south to Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and central Argentina. It occupies a variety of forest and woodland habitats including rainforests, cloud forests, tropical dry forests, plantations and gardens. It ranges from sea level up to elevations of 2500 m.
Food and Feeding
As with other hermit hummingbirds, the Great-billed hermit has a specialized diet consisting mainly of nectar taken from flowers with long, tubular corollas. Its elongated, decurved bill allows it to access deep nectar that smaller bills cannot reach. It has a specially adapted tongue with fringed tips that soak up liquid.
Preferred nectar sources include Heliconia, Costus, banana flowers and epiphytic Ericaceae. The large bill restricts pollen collection, so insects and spiders provide important protein, captured through sallying and gleaning behaviors. Occasionally small fruits may also be eaten. Like all hummingbirds, the Great-billed hermit drinks frequently while feeding due to its high metabolic rate.
Behavior and Breeding
The Great-billed hermit is territorial and solitary. Males defend flower territories against intruders and have elaborate courtship displays to attract females. Courtship involves aerial flights and dives, bill clasping, and production of buzzing, twittering and popping sounds with the tail feathers.
Nesting occurs from March to June in Central America, and August to November in South America. The small cup-shaped nest is constructed on a tree branch, made from plant fibers and moss bound with spider silk, lichen and bud scales. It is decorated externally with epiphytes for camouflage. The female lays two white eggs which she incubates alone for 15-19 days. Chicks fledge after 22-26 days and are fed by the female alone.
The Great-billed hermit has a very wide distribution and large population, estimated globally at 500,000 to 5 million individuals. The population is suspected to be in decline due to habitat loss, but not at a rate that would trigger threatened status. As a result, the IUCN Red List categorizes this species as Least Concern. However, habitat protection remains important for the persistence of healthy populations.
– The long bill led to an alternative common name – the Big-beaked Hermit. Costa Ricans call it chuparosa gigante which means giant hummingbird.
– Its feet are dull brownish-black, an unusual coloration among hummingbirds which typically have greyish feet.
– The wings beat around 70 times per second – among the slowest wingbeat frequencies of any hummingbird.
– It produces a loud wing whirring noise audible from afar, which may function for communication or territorial defense.
– This species was first scientifically described in 1788 by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin.
– Its tongue can protrude more than 5 cm beyond the end of the bill to reach nectar.
– Males perform an elaborate courtship display ritual, utilizing vocalizations, aerial pursuits, and bill placement motions.
In summary, the Great-billed hermit is an iconic, unmistakable hummingbird adorned with a giant bill used to feast on specialized nectar sources. Despite its wide distribution through the Neotropics, it remains a colorful, charismatic bird that captures the imagination of bird enthusiasts and ecotourists. Conserving the forests and gardens where it resides will be crucial for ensuring the persistence of healthy populations of this unique hummingbird into the future.