The horned sungem (Heliactin bilophus) is a small but spectacular hummingbird found in the Amazon rainforest of northern Brazil, eastern Peru, eastern Ecuador and southern Colombia. With its brilliant orange coloring and unique forward-curving horns on the male’s head, this species is one of the most distinctive members of the Trochilidae family.
Reaching just 8-9 centimeters in length and weighing 2-3 grams, the horned sungem is a tiny bird. As is typical for a hummingbird, the male exhibits the more vibrant plumage in order to attract females. The male’s plumage is mostly brilliant orange on the head, throat, upper back and breast, with a bright metallic green lower back and belly. The most distinctive feature is the male’s forward-curving black horns, one on each side of the head above the eyes. These horns can reach 5-8 millimeters in length. The female lacks the horns and has more subtle gray-green plumage on the head, throat and upper back fading to pale gray underneath. Both sexes have a straight black bill and white-tipped tail feathers. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffy edges to the feathers.
Distribution and Habitat
The horned sungem is found across tropical rainforests in the Amazon basin, restricted to lowland areas below 1,000 meters in elevation. Its geographic range extends through eastern Peru, eastern Ecuador, southern Colombia, northern Bolivia and much of the Brazilian Amazon. It occurs in primary rainforest as well as second growth forests and semi-open areas like forest edges and clearings.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the horned sungem feeds on flower nectar and tiny insects. It uses its specialized long tongue to drink nectar while hovering in front of flowers. Preferred food plants include shrubs and small trees such as Ixora, Palicourea, Sanchezia and Pseudobombax. The sungem also hawks small insects, catching them in midair. It may defend nectar-rich food sources from other hummingbirds and flower-piercers.
Unique Flying Ability
One remarkable trait of sungems and other hummingbird species is their unique ability to fly both forward and backward as well as hover in place. They can do this thanks to specialized shoulder joints that allow the wings to rotate in a full circle. Other birds cannot rotate their wings in this way. This gives the sungem great maneuverability and allows it to hover in place while feeding on flowers. The wings beat at an average of 12-80 times per second, enabling this athleticism. The heart rate reaches as high as 1,260 beats per minute during flight.
Breeding and Nesting
The breeding season for the horned sungem varies across its range, typically occurring during the rainy season from October to March in Brazil. Males perform elaborate courtship displays, flying back and forth to attract the attention of females. Once paired, the female builds a small cup-shaped nest out of plant fibers, lichens and moss, camouflaging it against a tree trunk or branch. She lays just two tiny white eggs. The female alone incubates the eggs for about 16 to 19 days until they hatch. The chicks fledge in roughly 20 to 26 days, an exceptionally short time compared to most other birds. The female cares for the chicks without any assistance from the male.
The horned sungem is evaluated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It has a relatively broad geographic range and the population appears to be stable. However, habitat loss in the Amazon due to agriculture, logging and human settlement is a potential threat for the future. The sungem occurs in several protected areas across its range which helps ensure habitat preservation. More research is needed to estimate its global population size and monitor long-term trends. With its unique horns and brilliant coloration, the horned sungem remains one of nature’s living jewels of the Amazon. Protecting its rainforest home will be crucial for this petite hummingbird’s continued survival.