The violet-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis) is a breathtakingly beautiful hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its glittering emerald green body, vibrant violet tail, and elegant slender shape, this aptly named sylph is considered by many to be one of the most stunning hummingbirds in the world.
Range and Habitat
The violet-tailed sylph inhabits montane forest and elfin forest habitats at elevations between 2000-10000 feet in the Andes mountains of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Its range extends along the Andes from Venezuela in the north to central Bolivia in the south.
Within its range, the sylph prefers high-altitude cloud forests and forest edges rich with flowering plants. It is most abundant in habitats with a diversity of brightly colored tubular blossoms, which provide the nectar that sustains these fast-metabolism birds. Areas with an abundance of its favorite food plants, including the red-flowered Psittacanthus shrubs, are especially favored.
From beak to tail, the adult violet-tailed sylph reaches 5-6 inches in length and weighs 4-6 grams. The most striking feature of this hummingbird is the male’s extravagant tail, with outer tail feathers that extend 3-4 inches beyond the rest and are tipped with violet iridescence. When fluttering about, the sylph fans and pumps this tail to dazzling effect.
The body plumage of adult males is primarily emerald green above and silvery white below from chin to belly. The crown and throat are glittering blue-green. Females are similar to males but lack the long tail feathers and have white spotting on the throat. Both sexes have a slender downcurved bill well-adapted for accessing nectar from flowers.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, violet-tailed sylphs have extremely high metabolisms and must consume large quantities of energy-rich sugary nectar each day. They use their slender bills to access nectar from specialized tubular blossoms. Some favorite nectar sources include flowering Psittacanthus shrubs, fuchsias, and lupines.
In addition to nectar, sylphs will eat small insects and spiders snatched from foliage and flowers. They use long, extensible forked tongues to capture this protein-rich prey. The birds play a role in pollination as they move between nectar-rich blossoms.
Courtship and Breeding
During courtship displays, male sylphs perform elegant aerial dances to impress females. They fly in U-shaped arcs while rapidly fanning their long tail feathers and fluffing their crown feathers. If receptive, females will respond with their own dance-like return flight.
Breeding takes place from August to December. The female constructs a small delicate cup nest out of plant fibers and spider webs on a vertical tree fern, bromeliad, or mossy trunk. She lays just two tiny white eggs and incubates them for 16-19 days. The chicks hatch with eyes closed and almost no down. Both parents help feed the young a diet of insects and nectar. The fledglings leave the nest at 22-26 days old.
Threats and Conservation
Deforestation across its range has led to habitat loss and population declines for the violet-tailed sylph. Agricultural expansion, logging, and grazing have degraded and fragmented its specialized high-elevation habitats. It is now considered near threatened by the IUCN Red List.
Conservation efforts focus on habitat protection and restoration. Expanded protection of cloud forest and elfin forest habitats will be critical for preserving populations of this exquisite high-elevation hummingbird into the future. Though challenging to see, ecotourism and birdwatching interest in the sylph may also aid conservation efforts by bringing economic incentives to Andean communities.
The Violet Jewel of the Andes
With its glittering colors, artistic tail, and aerial agility, the aptly named violet-tailed sylph is considered one of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world. Though threatened by habitat loss, this high-elevation specialist remains a jewel of the Andean cloud forests, captivating all lucky enough to observe its displays. Conserving remaining sylph habitats will ensure the continued survival of these captivating birds and the continued enjoyment of all who marvel at their beauty.