I’m not a birder but I do observe birds on occasion. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with lots of trees and shrubbery still, so there are lots of wild birds to see (and hear) other than the feral pigeon and the ubiquitous Eurasian sparrow. A pair of peregrine falcons have actually nested in a cell tower in the neighborhood for years now. But that’s a story for another post.
Olive-backed sunbird Cinnyris jugularis
A few months ago, my father heard a bird singing at the backyard and told me to take out the camera and take a picture. It was perched on a guava tree and feeding on the guava flowers in bloom. It was quite hard to focus so I had to make do with dark, blurry photos. A couple of weeks ago, I heard a similar tune again in our backyard, but this time the bird was perched on a pink velvet banana, feeding on its flowers. So I quickly took out my camera and hoped the bird won’t fly away while I prepared to take pictures. The resulting photo was much better, but still not the best. Upon much Googling, it turns out to be a male olive-backed sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) based on the metallic blue coloration on its throat, and the bird from a few months ago was a female (no metallic blue throat coloration). I waited for a few weeks until I heard the familiar tune again and saw that a male sunbird was feeding on the nectar from the neighbor’s hibiscus flowers. Finally I got a photograph decent enough for posting.
The olive-backed sunbird was first described by Mathurin Jacques Brisson in his 1760 book Ornithologia sive synopsis methodica sistens avium divisionem in Ordines, Sectiones, Genera, Species, ipsarumque Varietates, in which he called it “Le petit grimpereau des Philippines” (small tree-creeper of the Philippines), with the scientific name Certhia philippensis minor, which means exactly that – a small tree-creeper of the Philippines. He mentioned seeing an exemplar not live in the wild but stuffed inside the cabinet of a certain Father Aubry. The units of measure he used in his descriptions – “pouce”, “ligne” – were old French units that correspond to ~27.07 mm and ~2.256 mm, respectively.
Il est beaucoup plus petit que le precedent. Sa longeur depuis le bout du bec jusqu’a celui de la queue est de trois pouces huit lignes, & jusqu’a celui des ongles de trois pouces six lignes. Son bec depuis sa pointe jusqu’aux coins de la bouche a neuf lignes de long; sa queue quinze lignes; son pied six lignes; & celui du milieu des trois doigts anterieurs, joint avec l’ongle, quatre lignes & demie: les lateraux font un peu plus courts; & celui de derriere est presqu’aussi long que celui du milieu de ceux de devant. Il a cinq pouces huit lignes de vol; & fes ailes, lorsqu’elles sont pliees, s’etendent jusqu’aux deux tiers de la longeur de la queue. Les parties superieures de la tete & du col, le dos, le croupion, les plumes scapulaires, les couvertures du dessus de la queue sont d’un gris-brun. La gorge est marquee d’une violet fonce. La partie inferieure du col, la poitrine, le ventre, les cotes, les jambes, les couvertures du dessous des ailes sont jaunes. Les plumes de l’aile sont d’un gris-brun. La queue est composee de douze plumes: les huit du milieu sont d’un brun fonce: les deux plus exterieures de chaque cote sont de la meme couleur, & terminees de blanc-jaunatre, cette derniere couleur coupant obliquement la plume la plus exterieure de chaque cote. Le bec, les pieds & les ongles sont noiratres. On le trouve aux Isles Philippines, d’ou il a ete envoye a M. l’Abbe Aubry, que le conserve dans son cabinet.
[It is much smaller than the previous one. Its length from the tip of the beak to the tail is three pouces and eight lignes, to the nail is three pouces and six lignes. Its beak from the tip to the corners of its mouth is nine lignes long; its tail fifteen lignes; its foot six lignes; and the middle toe together with the nail four and a half lignes: the lateral toes are slightly shorter; and the hind toe is nearly as long as the middle toe. It is five to eight pouces when in flight; and its wings when folded, extend to two thirds of the length of its tail. The upper part of the head and the nape, the mantle, the rump and the uppertail coverts are gray-brown. The throat is marked with dark purple. The lower part of the neck, breast, abdomen, sides, legs and underwing coverts are yellow. Wing feathers are gray-brown. The tail is composed of twelve feathers: the middle eight are a dark brown, the two most exterior on each side are the same color, and they terminate into yellowish white, which obliquely cuts the exterior feathers on each side. The beak, feet and nails are blackish. It is found in the Philippine Islands, from where it was sent to Father Aubry who keeps it inside his cabinet.]
The olive-backed sunbird was also mentioned by Carl Linnaeus in his 1766 book, the 12th edition of Systema Naturae. This was the last edition of Systema Naturae, and the species of birds included in the 12th edition (one of which was the olive-backed sunbird, which he named Certhia jugularis.) was double that of the 10th edition.
Certhia. Rostrum arcuatum, tenue, subtrigonum, acutum.
jugularis 7. C. subgrisea, subtus lutea, gula violacca, recticibus duabus extimis apice flavis.
Certhia philippinensis minor. Briss. av. 2. p. 616. t. 32. f. 5.
Habitat in Philippines.
The genus name Certhia came from the Greek word κέρθιος (kerthios), which occurred in Aristotle’s work Historia Animalium VIII:
ἔστι δέ τι ὀρνίθιον μικρὸν ὃ καλεῖται κέρθιος· οὗτος τὸ μὲν ἦθος θρασύς, καὶ οἰκεῖ περὶ 30δένδρα, καὶ ἔστι θριποφάγος, τὴν δὲ διάνοιαν εὐβίοτος, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν ἔχει λαμπράν.
[And there is a certain little bird called kerthios; in character this bird is bold, and dwells among trees, and feeds on woodworms; as to intelligence, it lives well; its voice is clear.]
The species name jugularis is derived from Latin and means “of the throat; -throated”, probably referring to the metallic throat coloration in males.
Its current genus name Cinnyris, was first used by Georges Cuvier in 1817 in his book Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation : pour servir de base a l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction a l’anatomie comparée. Cuvier grouped sun-birds in one genus, Cinnyris. The genus name was derived from Greek κιννυρις (kinnuris), which was mentioned by Hesychius of Alexandria to refer to a very small bird. He called them souï-mangas in French, from the Madagascar dialect for “eat sugar”.
Les Souï-Mangas (2)
N’ont pas non plus le queue usee; leur bec long et tresgrele a le bord de ses deux mandibules finement dentele en seie; leur langue, susceptible de s’allonger hors du bec, se termine en fourche; ce sont de petits oiseaux dout les males brillent au temps des amours de couleurs metalliques et approchant de l’eclat des colibris, qui’ils principalement en Afrique. Ils vivent sur les fleurs dout ils pompent le suc; leur naturel est gai et leur chant agreable. Leur beaute en a fait apporter beaucoup dans nos cabinet; mais le plumage des femelles et celui des males pendant la mauvaise saison etant tout different de leur plumage brillant, ou a peine a bien caracteriser les especies.
(2) Cinnyris, nom grec d’un tres-petit oiseau inconnu. Souï-manga signifie, dit-on, mange sucre dans un jargon de Madagascar.
[The Sunbirds (2)
Don’t lean on the tail; the edges of their long and very slender beak are finely serrated; the tongue, which is capable of protrusion, terminates in a little fork. They are small birds, the males of which have most brilliant metallic colors during the season of propagation, approaching the hummingbirds in beauty; of which, in this respect, they are representatives in the Eastern Continent, being found principally in Africa and the Indian Archipelago. They subsist on the nectar of flowers, which they suck up; are of a lively disposition, and sing agreeably. Their beauty renders them a great ornament in our cabinets; but the garb of the female sex, and of the male in winter, is so different that the species are not easy to characterize.
(2) Cinnyris, Greek name for an unknown small bird. Soui-manga means, how they say “eat sugar” in Madagascar dialect.]
- Brisson, Mathurin Jacques. 1760. Ornithologia sive synopsis methodica sistens avium divisionem in Ordines, Sectiones, Genera, Species, ipsarumque Varietates.
- Linnaeus, Carl. 1766. Systema Naturae 12th edition.
- Aristotle. 4th century BC. Historia Animalium Book VIII.
- Aristotle. 1965. History of animals, translated to English.
- Cuvier, Georges. 1817. Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation : pour servir de base a l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction a l’anatomie comparée.
- Cuvier, Georges. 1854. Animal Kingdom arranged after its organization: forming a natural history of animals, and an introduction to comparative anatomy, translated to English.