The purple-throated sunangel (Heliangelus viola) is a species of hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its brilliant violet throat, emerald green body, and long tail feathers, it is considered one of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world. In this article, we will explore the key characteristics, behavior, habitat, diet, reproduction, and conservation status of this spectacular bird.
Adult male purple-throated sunangels have metallic emerald green upperparts and underparts, with the exception of the head which has a violet-blue crown, and the throat which is a shimmering amethyst purple. The tail is long and deeply forked, with the two outermost feathers being the longest. Females are similar but lack the vivid purple throat patch, having instead small white dots lining the throat. Both sexes have a long straight black bill adapted for accessing nectar from flowers. The species measures approximately 11–12 cm in length and weighs 5–7 grams.
The genus name Heliangelus comes from the Greek words helios meaning sun and angelos meaning messenger, referring to these hummingbirds’ coloring which resembles a sunbeam. The species name viola is Latin for violet, denoting the brilliant purple throat of the males.
Behavior and Diet
The purple-throated sunangel is typically found alone or in pairs, actively defending flower territories against intruders. Their long bills allow them to feed on nectar from a variety of specialized high Andean blooms, particularly Puya bromeliads and trumpet-shaped flowers which hold abundant nectar in areas frequented by few other pollinators. This though comes at a cost, as the long bills are less efficient at extracting nectar from shorter flowers compared to hummingbirds with shorter bills. As with all hummingbirds, the purple-throated sunangel also feeds on small insects which provide essential protein and nutrients.
To feed, the hummingbird hovers in front of a flower, extending its bill deep inside to lap up nectar while keeping its wings beating at high speeds to maintain hovering flight. The wings beat approximately 70 times per second, making the characteristic humming noise that gives these birds their name. The tongue is specially adapted to lap nectar, with tube-like groves that soak up the sweet liquid.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
During courtship displays, the males fly in U-shaped patterns, with the vibrant purple throat flashing in the sunlight. If a female is impressed, she will allow the male to mate with her. After mating, the female builds a small cup-shaped nest out of plant fibers and spider webs, attached to a tree branch or other vegetation.
She lays two tiny white eggs in the nest, which she incubates alone for about 15-19 days until they hatch. The chicks are born featherless, with closed eyes, but develop quickly on a diet of regurgitated nectar and insects provided by the female. They fledge the nest at 22-26 days old. Not much else is known about the lifespan or longevity of wild purple-throated sunangels.
Habitat and Distribution
The purple-throated sunangel is found along the Andes mountain range from Venezuela to Bolivia, at elevations between 2400-4800 meters. Its preferred habitat is cloud forest and elfin forest interspersed with mountain meadows. It favors areas with a profusion of its specialized nectar flowers and abundant flying insects.
Within its broad latitudinal range along the Andes, the purple-throated sunangel has a patchy distribution, being relatively uncommon and localized compared to other hummingbird species. The remote and rugged terrain of its mountainous habitat made this species hard to study, and much of its behaviors in the wild are still poorly known. It appears to undertake seasonal elevational migrations, moving to lower levels in winter months when flowers become scarce at higher elevations.
While the purple-throated sunangel remains fairly widely distributed, its fragmented populations are small and believed to be in decline. Habitat loss from deforestation, agricultural expansion, grazing, and mining activities have degraded many parts of its specialized high Andean habitat. It is now considered near threatened by the IUCN Red List, with climate change posing an additional threat to the future survival of this species.
More research is needed to estimate population sizes and trends in order to implement appropriate conservation actions for the purple-throated sunangel. Protected areas that preserve sections of pristine cloud forest and elfin forest habitat may help provide sanctuaries for dwindling populations. Given its unique adaptations and exquisite beauty, losing the purple-throated sunangel would represent an incalculable loss for South America’s biodiversity and natural heritage.
With its scintillating violet gorget and graceful hovering flight, the purple-throated sunangel is a jewel of the Andes that captivates all who are fortunate enough to see it. As development and climate change impacts some of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, the future of this rare high-elevation specialist hangs in the balance. Targeted conservation efforts focused on habitat protection and close monitoring of populations will be key to preserving the purple-throated sunangel for generations to come.
The striking beauty and unique ecology of this hummingbird serves as a reminder of the fragile interconnectedness and inherent worth of all life on our planet. If we wish to pass on a healthy, biodiverse world to future generations, then protecting magnificent species like the purple-throated sunangel must remain a top priority. Though small in stature, its fate speaks volumes about our human priorities and vision for the natural world.