Venezuela is home to over 20 species of sylph hummingbirds, making it one of the most diverse countries for these tiny, energetic birds. The sylphs are a subfamily known as the Phaethornithinae, characterized by their small size, slender bills, and relatively short tails. Three genera containing sylphs are found in Venezuela – Campylopterus, Phaethornis, and Threnetes.
The Small Hermit (Phaethornis longuemareus) is one of the most widespread sylphs in Venezuela, found across a variety of habitats from lowland rainforest to mountain cloud forest. At just 5-6 cm long, it is aptly named for its tiny size. The male has a reddish-brown head and greenish-bronze upperparts, with grey underparts and a short black tail tipped white. The slightly larger female has a greener head and browner upperparts. The long curved bill sets it apart from other hummingbirds. The Small Hermit feeds on nectar taken from a variety of small flowers and flowering trees, including heliconias and beslerias.
The Koepcke’s Hermit (Phaethornis koepckeae) is endemic to Venezuela, found only in scrubby forest patches in the northwestern part of the country. The male is greenish above with a blue-tinged crown, rufous undertail, and whitish tips to the outer tail feathers. The female is duller with a greener crown. First described in 1977 and named for German-born Peruvian ornithologist Maria Koepcke, this is one of the rarest Venezuelan endemics. Habitat loss poses the biggest threat to its limited population.
Campylopterus is a genus of larger sylphs known as sabrewings for their relatively broad, curved wings. The Napo Sabrewing (Campylopterus villaviscensio) is a Venezuelan endemic found along the base of the Andes in the south. The male has striking violet-blue upperparts with a forked black tail and curved bill. Females are duller greenish-bronze above with rufous markings in the tail. An acrobatic flyer, it feeds on nectar from flowers such as fuchsias.
The Wedge-billed Hummingbird (Schistes geoffroyi) is the largest Venezuelan sylph, measuring up to 15 cm. The male is unmistakable with its fiery orange bill. Found in forest and woodland interiors, it uses its bill to pry open flowers other hummers can’t access. The female is emerald green above with whitish underparts. Both sexes have a broad rounded tail with white tips to the outer feathers.
One of the most spectacular sylphs is the Green-tailed Goldenthroat (Polytmus theresiae). The male has an iridescent golden-green throat and upper breast, with a violet-blue crown and green body. But the real showstopper is its long, graduated green tail with a wide subterminal black band. The female has a bronzy tail and lacks the colorful throat patch. Endemic to Venezuela, its habitats are rapidly declining.
The endemic Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) of the tepuis highlands is dull brown overall, but shows violet patches on the sides of its ear coverts. It feeds on flowers and insects gleaned in flight, favoring bromeliads. The Tepui Goldenthroat (Polytmus milleri) is another tepui endemic, with an iridescent yellow throat patch on the male and bronze-tinged upperparts on the female. Both species are localized and threatened by mining activities in the region.
Ranging into the lowlands is the striking Rufous-crested Coquette (Lophornis magnificus). The male has a bushy reddish head crest, green upperparts, and a frontal white spot. The female is crestless and has rufous markings on a greenish body. One of the most diminutive hummingbirds at just 6-7 cm long, it prefers forest edge and second growth.
The Green Hermit (Phaethornis guy) is aptly named for its bright emerald green upperparts. It has a straight dark bill unlike other hermit species. The male has a glittering purple throat bordered with black. Found in forest and woodland, it is common across much of northern South America. Several other greenish Phaethornis hermits occur in Venezuela such as Little, Straight-billed, and Long-billed.
Sylphs play an important role as pollinators for many plants throughout Venezuelan ecosystems. Unfortunately they face threats from habitat loss as forests are cleared and fragmented. Climate change may also impact seasonal flowering patterns they depend on. Protecting biodiversity hotspots and shade coffee plantations can help provide refuge for these colorful sprites. Further study is needed to better understand populations of endemic species with limited ranges. Venezuela’s sylphs showcase an incredible diversity of forms and behaviors for their tiny sizes. Conserving their forest homes ensures these flying jewels will continue to glisten over the landscapes of Venezuela.