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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Garden invaders

TASTY DRINK: Sunbirds use their long beaks to extract nectar and insects from flowers.
ByAlan Rogers
RECENTLY when reading an article on the frequent incursions of urban foxes into houses and the mutilation of two babies inside a London house, my mind turned to the large number of feral dogs who hunt in packs of up to nine in Kuching.
The very same day, I picked out a copy from my library of the first edition book, published in 1916, of ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’ written by Robert WG Shelford, who was one of the earliest curators of The Sarawak Museum.In a chapter entitled ‘Bird-Life’, he wrote about the Sunbird family with plates depicting and distinguishing the variety of nests of this bird group. My mind returned to the pleasurable intruders in my garden in Kuching during my frequent visits to Sarawak and their nesting habits.
Early in the morning until 11am, these humming-like birds hovered over a synthetic plant hanging under the window canopy, gradually building an elongated nest, which tapered downwards and was carefully woven from dead leaves, moss and bits of discarded string. The nest was completed in under a week with a small porch interwoven above the entrance hole to deflect the rain.
Occasionally, the birds would stop for a rest and, with their long beaks, extract nectar and insects from the heliconia plants in the garden. From 11am to 3pm in the heat of the day, the pair would cease their work only to continue again for an hour. To predators, the nest resembled that of a wasp.
Once the nest was completed, the birds disappeared for a week to then return, lay and incubate two eggs.The chicks hatched within 10 days and during the incubation period both birds would take turns sitting. Once the chicks arrived, the parents, again taking turns, would zoom off towards the secondary forest and the neighbour’s gardens, then return to feed their nestlings.
Within two weeks of hatching, all birds had flown off ... but a pair returned later in the year to build a parallel nest alongside the old one. These birds are Olive- backed Sunbirds otherwise known as Yellow-bellied Sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis). My birds hovered over the heliconias whilst drawing nectar from the flowers.
THE NESTS: To predators, Sunbird nests resemble that of wasps.

Their bright yellow under parts and the metallic blue forehead, throat and upper breast splashed much active colour into my garden. It is recorded that these birds were originally confined to mangrove swamps but with much land reclamation and subsequent urbanisation, they are now frequently seen in our gardens.
Sadly my front garden had to be demolished to make way for a new car porch and that, I thought, was the end of my colourful and acrobatic friends; fortunately I transplanted all the heliconias in my back garden and the artificial hanging plants. Sure enough, they returned to the back of the house the following year and nested again.
My feathered friends should not be confused with Spiderhunters of the genus Arachnothera, which like the Sunbirds belong to the Nectariniidae family. The Bornean spiderhunter is also a frequent visitor to our suburban gardens and also build similar shaped nests.
Oh to see such flamboyant fliers in my garden deep in the countryside in southwest England, although this summer I have witnessed a Blue Parakeet and a Lesser Green Woodpecker. Recently, my garden even received a visitation from an escaped herd of cattle.
I look forward to seeing my Sarawakian sunbirds again and am so pleased that they nest in such a way as to deter other garden intruders such as feral dogs and pythons.
For more see ‘A Naturalist In Borneo’ by Robert WG Shelford and ‘Sunbirds’ by Cheke, Mann and Allen at www.naturia.per.sg.

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