Rare Splendid Sunbird Pair Rears Chick at San Diego Zoo, Only Three of Their Kind in US

September 29, 2020 Updated: September 29, 2020

The aptly named splendid sunbird is so incredibly rare, state side, that only two birds existed in the United States until mid-2020. However, a pair that has been together at San Diego Zoo in California since 2019 have nested and successfully hatched a chick together, making it three in total.

The sunbird pair reared the chick, a male born on July 21, in their self-built nest at the zoo’s Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks Aviary.

Amy Flanagan, San Diego Zoo’s avian wildlife care supervisor, described the hatching of the chick to CBS 8 as “very exciting,” and “a big deal,” adding, “This is the first time for the zoo. It’s the only pair [of splendid sunbirds] in the country.”

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The splendid sunbird chick being fed by its mother at the San Diego Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks Aviary, as pictured on Aug. 11, 2020. (Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global)

Despite the species’ rarity in the United States, in its native habitat of west-central Africa, the splendid sunbird is of least concern. In fact, it is thriving.

“[T]here are plenty of them,” Flanagan explained. “They’re pollinators and nectar feeders. They also eat small bugs.”

The expertly constructed sunbird nest-turned-nursery at the zoo was woven from fine fibers collected from around the aviary, Flanagan explained. The female, as is typical, built the nest on her own; its structure was embellished by dog hair and spider webs collected for this purpose by the zoo’s wildlife care specialists and gifted to the aviary.

The nest, said Flanagan, resembles an upside-down pendulum.

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The fluffy male splendid sunbird chick at the San Diego Zoo, as pictured on Aug. 11, 2020. (Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global)

The male chick hatched after an incubation period of 14 days, and his gender was discernible, the zoo explained in a news release, from the dark coloration on his throat. The adult male’s splendid plumage is what gives this tiny African bird its common name.

After he emerged, the chick’s parents dutifully set to work collecting food from around the aviary. San Diego Zoo staffers pitched in to help provide the very specific nutrients he needed. “They’ve collected spiders from the entire zoo to offer to this female and then to feed the chick,” said Flanagan.

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The adult male splendid sunbird at the San Diego Zoo, demonstrating how the species got its name, as pictured on March 16, 2018. (Tammy Spratt/San Diego Zoo Global)

Once old enough to leave the nest, the chick was relocated to the zoo’s avian propagation center, away from the public exhibit, and the adult male and female decided to put their finely honed parenting skills into practice once again. The female laid another egg after only nine days, according to CBS8.

Flanagan said staffers would soon know whether the egg had been fertilized.

The splendid sunbird—”Cinnyris coccinigastrus”—is described as an “Old World” passerine bird by Avianweb. These tiny birds feed mainly on nectar by hovering like hummingbirds and sipping with brush-tipped tubular tongues. Insects predominate when the birds are feeding their young.

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While the adult male is an eye-catching glossy purple color with a dark-green back and a red breast, the female sports a more muted coloration of greenish-brown and yellow.

The only other pair of splendid sunbirds in known captivity, beside the breeding pair at the San Diego Zoo, resides in England.

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