The Violet-throated Starfrontlet (Coeligena violifer) is a small hummingbird found exclusively in the Andes Mountains of South America. With its metallic green body, brilliant violet throat, and long, curved bill, this species is considered one of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world.
The Violet-throated Starfrontlet is a member of the mountain gem family of hummingbirds known as Coeligena. There are five recognized species in this genus, all limited to the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Violet-throated Starfrontlet has a very restricted range, found only on a few mountain peaks and slopes in southern Ecuador and northern Peru between elevations of 3000-4800 meters.
Due to its isolated mountain habitats, the global population of the Violet-throated Starfrontlet is estimated at only 1000-2500 mature individuals. This has led the IUCN Red List to classify the species as Endangered. Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation pose the biggest threats. As such, conservation actions are needed to protect remaining populations and habitat for this rare Andean endemic.
The Violet-throated Starfrontlet is a very small hummingbird, measuring only 9-10 centimeters in total length and weighing 4-5 grams. As its name suggests, the male has brilliant violet feathers covering its throat, upper chest, and crown. The belly is white, while the back and tail are metallic green. The long bill is mostly black, ideal for probing into flowers. The female is similar but has white spotting on its throat and lacks the violet feathers.
This species exhibits an unusual trait called torpor, where they lower their body temperature and metabolism during cold Andean nights to conserve energy. They perch motionless, appearing almost dead. But when dawn arrives, they quickly revive to full activity. This adaptation allows them to survive at higher elevations than most other hummingbirds.
The Violet-throated Starfrontlet subsists almost entirely on nectar from flowering plants and small arthropods. Favorite nectar sources include plants from the genera Espeletia, Fuchsia, and Angelica. The long bill and tongue are perfectly adapted for probing into long Andean flowers. While feeding, the birds hover in front of the blooms licking up nectar with their specialized tongues that roll and flick 13 times per second.
Small insects supplement the diet, especially in the non-breeding season when fewer flowers are in bloom. The birds capture insects on the wing, gleaning them from foliage, or even stealing them from spider webs. Common prey includes flies, beetles, leafhoppers, and spiders.
Courtship and Breeding
One of the most fascinating aspects of Violet-throated Starfrontlet biology is their elaborate courtship displays. Males defend small territories with suitable flowers that they use to attract potential mates. When a female enters his territory, the male begins an intricate aerial dance, flying in pendulum arcs above the female while fanning his tail feathers.
He dives and soars repeatedly, all while orienting his iridescent throat towards the female. If she is receptive, she will eventually join the male in flight and copulation occurs in midair. After mating, the female builds a small cup nest on a cliff ledge lined with moss and fibers. She incubates the two tiny eggs for about 16 days until they hatch. Both parents share feeding duties until the chicks fledge at 22 days old.
Threats and Conservation
With its tiny global population and dependence on a fragile mountain ecosystem, the Violet-throated Starfrontlet faces an uncertain future. The primary threats are habitat loss and degradation from land use changes. Logging, cattle grazing, agricultural expansion, and mining have destroyed and fragmented critical forest habitat across the Andes. Climate change poses an additional long-term threat by pushing cloud forests higher in elevation.
But there is hope for the Violet-throated Starfrontlet. Parts of its range occur in protected areas like Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador. Conservation groups are also working with local communities to sustainably manage forests and pastoral lands. Ecotourism projects help provide income while giving residents incentive to conserve wildlife. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs may aid declining populations. Further studies on distribution, genetics, and ecology are needed to better inform management efforts. With prompt action, this jewel of the Andes can continue to glitter for generations to come.
The Violet-throated Starfrontlet is a very petite hummingbird, but has a number of striking physical features. It measures 9–10 cm in length and weighs only 4-5 grams, less than a nickel. The male’s plumage is a glittering metallic green on the back, rump, wings and tail. Its head has an iridescent violet crown and throat that dazzle in the light. When perched, the tail is usually held forked. The bill is long, thin and decurved, perfectly adapted for nectar feeding.
Females are similar in overall coloration but lack the brilliant violet throat patch. Instead they have white spotting and streaks on the chin and throat. The female’s tail is rounded rather than forked. Juveniles resemble adult females but have buffy edges to their plumage feathers.
Many hummingbirds have vibrant colors produced by iridescent feathers. In the Violet-throated Starfrontlet, the color comes from complex cellular nanostructures in the feathers. They refract and separate light to produce the striking violet hue. The bird’s small size helps it thermoregulate in cold Andean environments. By entering torpor at night, their metabolism drops to conserve energy.
Behavior and Vocalizations
The behaviors and vocalizations of the Violet-throated Starfrontlet provide important social cues for mating and defending territory. Males perform remarkable dive displays during courtship, meant to show off their iridescent colors. They fly in pendulum arcs above females while orienting their vibrant throats towards her. The male’s wings whir loudly to exaggerate the shimmering feathers.
Vocalizations help communicate within dense mountain forests. Their high-pitched call is a series of thin, squeaky chip notes. A sharp “chip-burrr” call is made in alarm or agitation. The male’s territorial song is a mix of thin squeaks and trills repeated in a series. Females vocalize much less but make a high-pitched “sit” call during copulation. High-speed video reveals her wings whir at an incredible 93 beats per second during mating!
Habitat and Distribution
The Violet-throated Starfrontlet is found only in a very restricted range along the Andes Mountains in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. Its breeding habitat occurs on just a few mountaintops between 3000-4800 meters elevation in cloud forest and paramo vegetation zones. They prefer areas with plentiful flowering plants amid scrubby trees and shrubs.
In Ecuador, they inhabit selective peaks in the Loja and Zamora-Chinchipe provinces. Their Peruvian range is limited to parts of the Huancabamba region. Due to this isolated distribution on just a handful of mountain ranges, their population is estimated at only 1000-2500 mature individuals. They are not migratory and reside year-round in small territorial ranges on their Andean slopes.
Diet and Feeding
The diet of Violet-throated Starfrontlets consists mainly of nectar and small arthropods. They use their specialized tubular tongues to lap up nectar while hovering in front of flowers. Preferred plant genera include Espeletia, Fuchsia, and Angelica, endemic flowers adapted to Andean environments. The rediscovery of the rare Pumapunga tree provided a vital food source. They supplement their diet with small insects like flies, leafhoppers, and beetles captured on the wing or gleaned from foliage.
To extract nectar, they lick the flowers up to 13 times per second with tongues that extend 20mm beyond their bills. The tongues have forked tips that efficiently soak up liquids. Their long bills match the elongated flower shapes of many Andean plants. While feeding, Violet-throated Starfrontlets must constantly flicker their wings to hover, beating them up to 93 times per second! This high-energy foraging requires visiting hundreds of flowers daily.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The reproduction and life cycle of Violet-throated Starfrontlets contains many unique behaviors. Males establish courtship territories with suitable flower patches and perches. In their elaborate aerial displays, males fly pendulum arcs over females to show off their colorful plumage. If receptive, the female joins him in flight and mating occurs on the wing.
The female alone builds a tiny cup nest on a cliff ledge with moss, fibers, and spider webs. She lays just two pea-sized white eggs and incubates them for 16-19 days. After hatching, both parents feed the chicks regurgitated nectar and insects. Nestlings fledge after 22-26 days but still receive parental care.
Females can raise up to two broods per season. Adults undergo an annual molt after breeding. Lifespan in the wild is unknown but up to 5 years in captivity. Despite high energy demands, these specialized hummingbirds thrive in Andean environments through adaptations like torpor. Their unique lifestyle and dazzling beauty make them a marvel of nature.
Threats and Conservation Status
The restricted range and tiny population has led the Violet-throated Starfrontlet to be classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss and degradation are the biggest threats facing the species. Logging, cattle grazing, mining, agriculture, and development have destroyed vast swaths of Andean cloud forest. Further habitat fragmentation isolates populations. Additional threats include climate change, disease, competition with invasive bird species, and collection for the pet trade.
Fortunately, conservation actions offer hope for protecting these rare hummingbirds. Expanding protected areas, managing land more sustainably, and restoring native vegetation can maintain critical habitat. Ecotourism projects also incentivize preservation. Continued ecological research and monitoring provides data to enhance conservation management decisions. Captive breeding may potentially aid depleted wild populations through reintroduction. By taking prompt action, the dazzling Violet-throated Starfrontlet can continue to persist as a jewel of the Andes.
With its vibrant violet gorget, metallic green plumage, and acrobatic courtship displays, the Violet-throated Starfrontlet is truly one of the most spectacular hummingbirds on Earth. But its limited endemic range and tiny fragmented population has led this Andean gem to the brink of extinction. Protecting remaining montane habitat from logging, grazing, and development is crucial for the species’ survival. Expanding protected areas, building local support for conservation, and responsible ecotourism can give communities incentive to sustainably manage land. Reintroduction, habitat restoration, and policies reducing deforestation are also vital for safeguarding populations. The fate of the Violet-throated Starfrontlet remains tenuous, but with swift action, its dazzling beauty can continue to adorn the high Andean skies.