The royal sunangel (Heliangelus regalis) is a stunningly beautiful hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its iridescent orange and green plumage, the male royal sunangel is one of the most striking hummingbirds in the world. In this article, we will explore the identification, distribution, habitat, diet, behavior, reproduction, and conservation status of this magnificent bird.
The male royal sunangel has brilliant orange plumage on its head, throat, and chest, with a metallic green back and wings. The female lacks the bright orange and has more drab olive-gray plumage. Both sexes have a long, slightly downturned bill that sets them apart from other Andean hummingbirds. Their total length is 4-4.5 inches. The “helio” part of their scientific name refers to the sun, describing the male’s radiant plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
The royal sunangel is found along the Andes mountains from Venezuela to Bolivia. Its elevational range is quite large, from around 2000 meters up to over 4000 meters in elevation. It occurs in mountain forests, woodland edges, scrublands, and paramo grasslands. This hummingbird is found in both humid and drier areas and can adapt to some habitat disturbance provided there are sufficient flowers available.
Like all hummingbirds, the royal sunangel feeds on nectar from flowers. It uses its specialized long bill to drink from tubular blossoms of various Andean plants such as brillantaisia, fuchsia, and besleria. The bill allows the bird to reach nectar that other birds cannot access. Insects and spiders are also occasionally eaten to obtain protein and fat. The royal sunangel uses a technique called trap-lining, revisiting favorite productive flowers over and over. It vigorously defends flower territories against intrusions from other hummingbirds.
The royal sunangel is pugnacious and territorial, using divergent wing displays and vocalizations to defend nectar resources. Males will also compete for the best display perches, with dominant individuals getting preferred sites. Despite their aggression towards each other, royal sunangels may form loose flocks of 6-12 birds that travel together between flower patches. Though they often perch while feeding, they are also quite maneuverable in flight, capable of precise hovering and sudden backward motions.
The breeding season for royal sunangels coincides with peaks in flower abundance from December to April. Males perform elaborate courtship flights to impress females, flying in looping patterns up to 50 feet in the air. Once paired, the female is solely responsible for building the small cup nest out of plant fibers and feathers. She incubates the 1-2 eggs for about 16-19 days. The chicks are fed regurgitated nectar and insects by the female. They fledge in approximately 23 days but remain dependent on the mother for several more weeks. Males provide no parental care in this species.
While still relatively common, the royal sunangel has a limited and fragmented distribution making it vulnerable to habitat loss. Deforestation, agricultural expansion, and climate change all pose threats to Andean cloud forests. The species is currently classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List but populations should be monitored for declines. Protecting key mountaintop habitats will be important for the long-term survival of royal sunangels and other endemic birds.
With its dazzling plumage perfectly adapted to high altitude environments, the royal sunangel is truly one of South America’s most spectacular avian gems. This petite hummingbird has mastered life in the imposing Andes through behavioral, morphological, and physiological adaptations. Providing continued protection for its specialized habitat and food plants will ensure the royal sunangel continues gracing the mountain forests with its vibrant colors for generations to come. Though small, it plays an important role in pollination and represents an integral part of Andean biodiversity. The royal sunangel’s beauty and tenacity make it a testament to the wonders of evolution and an inspiring reminder of nature’s capacity for splendor.