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|Female Crescent Honeyeater, Phylidonyris pyrrhopterus|
see the text.
The honeyeaters are a large family of small to medium sized birds which feed on nectar. They are most common in Australia and New Guinea, but are also found in New Zealand, the Pacific islands as far east as Samoa and Tonga, and the islands to the north and west of New Guinea. Bali, on the other side of the Wallace Line, has a single species.
Honeyeaters and the Australian chats (Epthianura) make up the family Meliphagidae. In total there are 182 species in 42 genera. About half of them are from Australia, many of the others are from New Guinea. They are part of the superfamily Meliphagoidea which includes their closest relatives, the Maluridae (Australian fairy-wrens), Pardalotidae (pardalotes), and Acanthizidae (thornbills, Australian warblers, scrubwrens, etc.). Although honeyeaters look and behave very much like other nectar-feeding birds around the world (such as the sunbirds and flowerpeckers), they are not related.
There is an important partnership between honeyeaters and Australian flowering plants. A great many Australian plants are fertilised by honeyeaters, particularly the Proteaceae, Myrtaceae, and Epacridaceae. It is known that the honeyeaters are important in New Zealand as well, and scientists believe they are just as important in other areas.
Unlike the hummingbirds of America, honeyeaters do not usually hover, that is be able to stay in the same air space, though smaller members of the family do hover hummingbird-style to collect nectar from time to time. Usually honeyeaters move quickly from perch to perch in the outer leaves, stretching up or sideways or hanging upside. Many honeyeaters have a highly developed brush-tipped tongue, covered with bristles which soak up liquids readily. The tongue is flicked rapidly and repeatedly into a flower, the upper mandible then squeezes any liquid out when the bill is closed.
As well as nectar, all or nearly all honeyeaters take insects and other small creatures, usually by catching them in the air, sometimes by picking them off plants. A few of the larger species, notably the White-eared Honeyeater, and the Strong-billed Honeyeater of Tasmania, search under bark for insects. Many species also eat fruit, and a small number eat large amounts of fruit, particularly in tropical rainforests and, oddly, in semi-arid scrubland. The Painted Honeyeater is a mistletoe specialist. Most, however, live on a diet of nectar and insects. In general, the honeyeaters with long, fine bills eat more nectar, the shorter-billed species less so, but even specialised nectar eaters like the spinebills take extra insects to add protein to their diet when they are breeding.
The movements of honeyeaters are poorly understood. Movement for most species seem to be local, possibly between favourite spots as the conditions change. Changes in the numbers of honeyeaters are common, but the small number of definitely migratory honeyeater species aside, the reasons are yet to be discovered. Many follow the flowering of favourite food plants. Arid zone species appear to travel further and less predictably than those of the more fertile areas. It seems probable that no single explanation will emerge: the general rule for honeyeater movements is that there is no general rule.
Taxonomy and history
- See also: List of honeyeaters
The genera Cleptornis and Apalopteron (Bonin Honeyeater), which were once in the Meliphagidae, have recently been moved to the Zosteropidae on genetic evidence. The genus Notiomystis (New Zealand Stitchbird), has recently been removed to the new Notiomystidae of which it is the only member. The "Macgregor's bird-of-paradise," once thought to be a bird of paradise (Paradisaeidae), was recently found to be a honeyeater. It is now known as "Macgregor's Honeyeater" and is classified in the Meliphagidae.
In 2008, a study of museum specimens in the genera Moho and Chaetoptila, both extinct genera from the Hawaiian islands, argued that these five species were not members of the Meliphagidae and instead belong to their own distinct family, the Mohoidae.
- as listed in Sibley & Monroe 1990
- Lindsey, Terence (1991). Forshaw, Joseph. ed. Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. pp. 208. .
- Driskell et al. 2007
- Cracraft & Feinstein 2000
- Fleischer RC, James HF, and Olson SL. (2008). Convergent evolution of Hawaiian and Australo-Pacific Honeyeaters from distant songbird ancestors. Current Biology, 18(24): 1927-1931.
- Barker, F.K., Cibois, A., Schikler, P., Feinstein, J., and Cracraft, J. (2004). Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proceedings Natl. Acad. Sci., USA 101 11040-11045.
- Christidis, L. and Boles, W.E. (1994). The Taxonomy and Species of Birds of Australia and its Territories. Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union Monograph 2. Melbourne: RAOU. ISBN 1-875122-06-0.
- Cracraft, J. and Feinstein, J. (2000). What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proc. Roy. Soc. London, B 267 233-241.
- Del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Christie D. (editors). (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-84-96553-42-2 (Epthianura and Ashbyia only)
- Driskell, A.C. and Christidis, L. (2004). Phylogeny and evolution of the Australo-Papuan honeyeaters (Passeriformes, Meliphagidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31 943–960.
- Driskell, A.C., Christidis, L., Gill, B., Boles, W.E., Barker, F.K., and Longmore, N.W. (2007). A new endemic family of New Zealand passerine birds: adding heat to a biodiversity hotspot. Australian Journal of Zoology 55 1-6.
- Sibley, C.G. and Monroe, B.L. Jr. (1990). Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04969-2.