The Velvet-browed brilliant (Heliodoxa xanthogonys) is a medium-sized hummingbird found in the Chocó region of western Colombia and western Ecuador. With its shimmering orange-rufous underparts and namesake velvety-brown cap, this species is considered one of the most beautiful of the brilliant hummingbirds.
Adult males of this species reach lengths of 10-11 cm and weigh 5-7 grams. Females are slightly larger at 11-12 cm. The most distinctive feature of this hummingbird is the velvety brown cap on the head, bordered below by a small white post-ocular spot. The rest of the upperparts are an iridescent golden green. The underparts are a vibrant orange-rufous color from the throat to vent. The tail is forked and steel-blue. The bill of this species is almost straight and about 2 cm in length.
Females lack the velvety brown cap and white spot, instead having golden-green upperparts matching the back. They also have greener underparts compared to the fiery orange-red of the male. Immature birds resemble adult females but have buffy edges to the feathers.
Distribution and Habitat
The Velvet-browed brilliant is restricted to humid lowland and foothill forests on the Pacific slopes of the Andes. Its range extends from western Colombia into northwestern Ecuador. In Colombia, it occurs from the Rio San Juan valley in the Chocó region south to near the border with Ecuador. The southern limit is around 1°30’N latitude near the city of Ibarra.
This species occurs at elevations up to 1,100 m, inhabiting dense, humid broadleaf evergreen forests as well as second growth woodlands and forest edge. It prefers areas with an abundance of flowering plants and large trees for perching.
Like other hummingbird species, the Velvet-browed brilliant feeds on nectar from flowering plants using its specialized long bill and tongue. It takes nectar by licking with its forked tongue at a rate of up to 20 licks per second while hovering in front of the flower. Some favorite food plants include heliconia and besleria flowers.
This species also feeds on small insects which provide important proteins. Aerial insects like flies and mosquitoes are gleaned from the air using the bill. The Velvet-browed brilliant may also pick small arthropods from leaves and branches while hovering.
Behavior and Breeding
The Velvet-browed brilliant, like most other trochilids, is solitary and territorial. Males defend feeding territories where they have access to prolific nectar sources. They aggressively chase other males or even larger intruders that enter their territory. Displays include wing-waving and frontal approaches.
Courtship displays by the male involve flying in U-shaped or figure-eight patterns in front of the female. If receptive, the female may respond with her own display flights. Once paired, the female builds a small cup nest out of mosses, lichens and plant fibers bound with spider webs. She lays two tiny white eggs. She incubates the eggs alone for 15-19 days until they hatch. The chicks are fed by the female and fledge at approximately 20-26 days after hatching.
The Velvet-browed brilliant has a relatively restricted range but is described as fairly common within its range. Its preferred humid lowland forest habitat is threatened by clearing for agriculture, logging and human settlement. However, it lives in some protected areas like the Rio Ñambí reserve in Ecuador. The current population is estimated at 10,000-100,000 individuals. While declining, the rate is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to trigger threatened status. As a result, the IUCN Red List categorizes this species as Least Concern. Ongoing habitat loss is a concern, so continued protection of remaining old-growth Chocó forest will be important for the long-term survival of the Velvet-browed brilliant.
– The velvety dark brown cap on the head of the male inspired both the common name and scientific name of this species. Xanthogonys means “yellow beard” in Greek, referring to the bright rufous underparts.
– Like all hummingbirds, the Velvet-browed brilliant has a very rapid metabolism and must feed frequently. Its heart rate can reach up to 1,260 beats per minute and it may breathe 250 times per minute even at rest.
– This species has a rapid wingbeat of around 70 per second, allowing it to hover in place while drinking nectar. It can also fly backwards by reversing the direction of its wingbeats.
– The brilliant iridescent plumage colors of this hummingbird are not from pigments, but rather result from the refracting structure of the feathers. Small air bubbles and protein platelets in the feathers cause specific wavelengths of light to reflect back, producing intense hues.
– Males perform courtship displays 20 to 100 feet up in the air, rapidly diving and climbing again at bursts of up to 35 miles per hour. Their elaborate aerial shows are meant to impress watching females.
In summary, the Velvet-browed brilliant is a stunning tropical hummingbird restricted to the humid forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Its specialized adaptations, like rapid wingbeats, allow it to feed on nectar while hovering at flowers. This dazzling bird remains locally common within its range and populations appear stable, though habitat loss is an ongoing threat. Increased preservation of the Chocó’s old-growth rainforests will help maintain viable populations of this species into the future.