Merida Sunangel Hummingbird Species

The Merida sunangel (Heliangelus spencei) is a species of hummingbird found exclusively in the Andes mountains of western Venezuela. With its vibrant plumage and energetic flight, this hummingbird has captivated bird enthusiasts and scientists alike. In this article, we will explore the identification, distribution, habitat, diet, behavior, reproduction, and conservation status of the rare and beautiful Merida sunangel.


The Merida sunangel is a medium-sized hummingbird, measuring approximately 11-12 cm in length. Males are distinguished by their brilliant orange and yellow plumage, with an iridescent purple crown and green shoulders. Females lack the bright crown and have greener plumage overall. Both sexes have a long straight black bill and whitish undersides. The name “sunangel” refers to the male’s radiant appearance, while “Merida” indicates the bird’s restricted range in the Andes around Mérida, Venezuela.

First described by the English zoologist Philip Sclater in 1860, the Merida sunangel is one of nearly 350 species in the hummingbird family (Trochilidae). It is the only member of the monotypic genus Heliangelus, distinguished from other hummingbird genera by morphological traits relating to its bill and tail shape. DNA analysis has confirmed its phylogenetic placement as a basal lineage in the mountain gem group of hummingbirds.

Distribution and Habitat

The Merida sunangel is endemic to the Venezuelan Andes. Its entire global range covers only two states in western Venezuela: Mérida and Táchira. It occupies a narrow elevation band between 2,000-3,000 m, inhabiting montane forest edges, scrublands, and paramo grasslands of the Cordillera de Mérida.

Within this limited distribution, the hummingbird has an estimated extent of occurrence of 12,300 sq km and an area of occupancy around 1,060 sq km. Its habitat is severely fragmented due to human impacts such as cattle ranching, agriculture, and development. The intact forests the Merida sunangel depends on are now confined to a few isolated reserves and national parks. Habitat loss and degradation are major threats facing this range-restricted species.


The vibrant plumage of the male makes the Merida sunangel one of the most exquisite hummingbirds in its range. The head and neck are cloaked in iridescent blue-purple, appearing black at some angles. The lower back and rump are also purple, contrasting sharply with the bright golden-green shoulders. The underparts are white from chin to vent. The tail is purplish-black and slightly forked. However, the most striking features are the male’s sunny orange mantle and vivid yellow belly, living up to the bird’s common name.

Females lack the ornamental crown and mantle feathers, instead showing solid green upperparts. The tail has white tips and the orange-yellow belly is duller than the male’s. Both sexes share the black bill with a pale lower mandible and whitish eye rings. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffy streaks on the throat and breast.

The Merida sunangel can be distinguished from other hummingbird species in its range by the combination of its medium size, strongly forked tail, and the male’s unmistakable colorful plumage. Only the females may be confused with other green-backed hummers.

Diet and Feeding

Like all hummingbirds, the Merida sunangel feeds on flower nectar and tiny insects. It uses its specialized long bill and extendable tongue to drink nectar from the flowers of mountain bushes, shrubs, and seasonal blooming plants. It prefers flowers with a tubular or curved corolla shape. Some observed nectar sources include the endemic Espeletia spp. and common mountain vegetation like fuchsias and forget-me-nots.

The hummingbird supplements its high-sugar diet with protein from small invertebrates like flies, beetles, and spiders. It displays remarkable maneuverability and flight skills to forage, hovering and flying backwards to access nectar and pluck insects from foliage and bark. It feeds throughout the day, defending favorite nectar sources from competitors. Average feeding territoriality ranges from 0.2 to 1 ha, varying seasonally based on flower availability.

Behavior and Breeding

The active Merida sunangel displays energetic territorial and courtship behaviors. Males perform aerial dive displays, flying up 10-15 m before diving sharply while singing rapidly. They defend feeding areas from intrusion by competitors and scout for females by perching prominently. Strange males are chased out of territories, occasionally leading to mid-air grappling.

Courtship involves the exchange of calls and hovering “dances”. Once paired, the female takes over building the small cup nest on a sheltered tree branch, using materials like moss, lichens, and spider webs. She incubates the two tiny white eggs alone for about 16-19 days. The chicks hatch with closed eyes and almost no feathers, reared on regurgitated insect matter for 18-23 days before fledging from the nest.

The breeding roles of this species reflect the common pattern among hummingbirds, in which males provide no parental care and focus on courtship and defense instead. Due to the cold climate, the Merida sunangel breeding season is limited to the warmer wet season between April and August. Not much more is known of its reproductive habits and lifespan in the wild.

Conservation Status and Threats

With its fragmented range, specialized habitat needs, and small global population (estimated at just 2500-10,000 mature individuals), the Merida sunangel is currently classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss from land use changes poses the most significant threat to its long-term survival.

The paramo grasslands this species inhabits have been extensively converted for agriculture and cattle ranching. Fire regimes have also changed unnaturally, damaging native vegetation. Ongoing development for ecotourism and human settlement continue to degrade and isolate remaining habitat.

Climate change will likely exacerbate habitat pressures, as upward shifts in vegetation zones shrink the extent of high elevation ecosystems. The impacts of avian poaching and introduced species like cattle egrets are still uncertain but also potential concerns.

Despite protected area coverage and ecotourism value, conservation actions are still needed to prevent declining population trends. Recommended measures include habitat protection, sustainable land management, community engagement, and monitoring. Captive breeding has not yet been successful for this or related species. Long-term conservation will rely on addressing habitat threats and managing protected forests to maintain optimal breeding habitat for this range-restricted sunangel.


With its restricted range, specialized ecology, and dazzling beauty, the rare Merida sunangel provides a fascinating case study of Andean hummingbird diversity. While many aspects of its natural history like migration and demographics remain poorly known, current evidence suggests the need for increased habitat conservation to ensure the persistence of this endangered species and its mountain ecosystem. Maintaining intact paramo habitat will not only preserve the Merida sunangel, but also the many other endemic and threatened plants and animals that share its isolated sky island home.