Purple sunbirds

The birds arrived back in Lahore after their autumn departures

Male purple sunbird. — Courtesy wildabouttravel.co.uk

Flooded in sharp, golden sunshine, our Lahore gardens in March enfold a jewel mystery fit to behold.

Guess what is tiny, shimmering, iridescent blue-purple and emits high-pitched metallic trills all over gardens and verges?; our unmistakable treasure trove of purple sunbirds. They have arrived back in Lahore in late February after their autumn departures.

Among our tiniest birds at about 4 inches long, people who have exposure to American birdlife sometimes wrongly identify purple sunbirds as hummingbirds. But ours are not those at all, since hummingbirds are ‘New World’ birds, and ours belong to the ‘old world’ including the sub-continent, Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

It’s the shimmer that catches the eye and triggers the visceral response. You just can’t take your eyes off them.

In his nuptial plumage, that is precisely what the male sunbird intends for his lady-love. All ready to emit love upon the springtime breezes, jerking this way and that, high up in the air, he sparkles blue-purple, fluttering his whole body, spreading his minute tail into fans, and fluffing his chest and head feathers into a rhythmic dance. The crescendo is so quick it almost escapes the human eye. From his jewel-coloured body, he opens his purple winged shoulders to reveal rich-yellow, pronged tuft feathers. Just a flash – so quick, the whole dance and song is barely a second long.

For one so small, perched near the top of a branch at the crown of a tree or bush, the male pours forth his song in an unusually vigorous and tuneful outburst. To accompany the dance and display, rapid, whistling trills like a canary are repeated 7-10 times in as many seconds.

All this fancy footwork and plumage of the male purple sunbird is the garb of spring and summer only. He has actually emerged from his eclipse plumage only in February prior to arriving in our Lahore gardens. As far as we are concerned, it is his Lahore finery.

In the autumn to winter months, our sunbirds make short migrations south to the areas of Panjnad where the five rivers join into the Indus and spread their habitat all the way into Sindh. In these warmer climes, the male of the species moults and sheds his metallic blue feathers to grow ones that look more like the female. His back becomes grey-green with only a stripe of metallic black extending from chin to lower belly.

Once on a November field trip to the Thal desert, I noticed our very own purple sunbirds. Perched on the tips of scrub bush, less radiant in winter moult, but still recognizable, I thought, “ahh, so this is your winter commute to these sandy, bushy deserts, away from our lush green flowering gardens”.

In fact, the purple sunbirds move into Pakistan’s northern riverine areas for their summer breeding from Sindh and south Punjab. They spread up to Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, and lower Murree in the summer enjoying the bauhinia or kachnaar and acacia trees in flower, loving the Margalla hills in flower. They are nectar-eating birds, moving where the trees and bushes are flowering in gardens, orchards and scrub forests. They also feed on the small insects and spiders associated with these plants.

In Lahore, our gardens are essential for the purple sunbird as this is the site of their second miracle apart from the radiant male. It is the female, smaller with olive grey back and yellow chest, who builds the nest. These are made close to humans in our garden creepers that climb up veranda poles, electric wires or in climber rose trellis structures as in my garden.

A pouch pendant appears as big as a lady’s cloth batwa or reticule, woven onto a horizontal wire or branch. You might mistake it as a bundle of soft, dry grass, but this is an intricate house distinctive to this family of birds. Stitched together with spider silk strands, cotton threads and the like, it is not woven as are many other nests but carefully stitched with natural fibers.

This habitation might be tiny but it’s enchanting. Birders notice that its small entrance hole never faces east or south, where the sun’s UV rays are strongest to penetrate. And, the piece de resistance, every nest has a porch outside the entrance, extending like a lip. Here bits of plastic, caterpillar droppings and rootlets hang as if to decorate this porch. It is inside here that two or three tiny, freckled eggs are laid and incubated over a fortnight by the mother bird. Later, sunbird chicks are fed by both parents.

Keeping our gardens free of chemicals is essential to attracting these beauties to Lahore. Their arrival signals spring with high-pitched trills and shimmering flashes that are a joy of the season. Our flowers and the tiny insects that live in healthy gardens are the magnets that bring them back every year.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist

Purple sunbirds