Olive-backed Sunbird : A miscalculated nesting

posted in: Nesting-failed, Sunbirds | 61

I was alerted to the nesting of a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis, formerly Nectarinia jugularis) by KC Tsang in April 2006. The nest was attached to a frond of a palm by a well-trodden path in a popular park. The elongated, flash-shaped nest was attached to the inside face of the frond and the opening was thus facing the palm stem and away from the road.

The nest was just above eye level. Yet, nearly all passersby failed to notice it. The nest looked like a bunch of dead leaves hanging on to the palm frond. I myself failed to notice it whenever I walked passed it in the evenings.

By May 2006 the nesting ended as the nest was empty for days after. Olive-backed Sunbirds usually lay one to three eggs but only one chick fledges. The empty nest deteriorated and on examination it contained one unfertilized egg. So I presume one chick must have fledged.

In March 2007 another nest was built on the same palm but attached to a different frond. Whenever I passed the spot and remembered the presence of the nest, I took a casual look and there was always a beak projecting from the opening (below left). Then in early April I noticed the frond where the nest was attached was drying out and its sheath was about to be detached from the stem. Thinking that nesting was completed, I moved close and suddenly a bird flew out. The nest was still active.

The next evening I made it a point to check on the nest. The frond was gone. An older frond that was about to fall off was also missing. On looking at the ground below, I saw two old fronds lying side by side. One frond had the nest still attached (left, arrow). There were no eggs inside. There was no sign of any eggs lying around nearby either.

Did the old fronds got detached by themselves or were they physically removed? My guess is that they were pulled down and left on the ground as they were lying side by side. It is possible that the maintenance crew did it, removing old and unsightly fronds from the palm. And not knowing(?) that there was an active nest attached.

I have since been told that such things happen all the time. Plants are regularly trimmed, nest and all. Now why can’t these people be made aware of such things – to leave active nests alone when pruning, etc?

Another puzzle is the absence of any eggs inside the nest. Were the eggs removed out of curiosity? And then thrown away?

Obviously the birds made a wrong choice by choosing a frond to build their nest that would not last the entire period of their nesting. Now how would the birds to know of such things?

Input and images by YC.

61 Responses

  1. Prof Harendra de Silva

    It is very interesting to note your observation of failed or abandoned nests. I have been following many birds in the premises of the Medical school. There was a crimpson fronted barbet couple that made a nice tree hole, to be chased away by a brown headed barbet (I saw it happening); sevral Munia nests were destroyed by crows. a Tickel’s flower pecker was been fed by the parents and one morning I found the nest destroyed brobably by crows or the shikra that hovers around. The Yellow orioles are usually agressive in protecting the young/eggs. However in the last nest only one of the two survived. The tailorbords usually make ‘dummy’ nests. and abandoned nests are common.
    I have made the statement that the crows are the worst enemy while the Shikra may attack esp when brooding. The other enemy is the Gardner/.

  2. We have a Yellow bellied sunbird nest on our deck in Cairns.. this season we have seen two lots of sunbirds hatch and fly away. The third set of eggs just hatched in the last few days but we have woken up this morning to find the nest has been stuffed with feathers and fluff. The babies were feeding yesterday. why has this happened .? Does anyone know? Would the babies be dead?

  3. It is possible that the nest has been predated…

  4. Maxine Walker


  5. It usually takes about 13-15 days for the eggs to hatch and another 13-15 days for the chicks to fledge – usually only one chick fledge. All the best to you pair.

  6. I have had Olive-backed Sunbirds building a nest in my backyard for the past 2 1/2 weeks but had not finished. when i woke up this morning the nest had fallen to the ground from rain and wind and they were hovering around. i havnt seen them back all day and was just wandering if there was any chance of them returning to finish/fix it. the main part that fell down i have hung next to where it was originally hanging. if anybody has any info in regards to this that would be great.
    if you want email me on beckm107@hotmail.com.au

  7. […] Robin (Copsychus saularis) and Striped Tit Babbler (Macronous gularis). In the case of this pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis), they miscalculated the life span of the palm frond the nest was attached to. […]

  8. Grahame Collins

    I have had Sunbirds build nests and raise their hatchlings in my garage for 4 consecutive years running.

    Believe it it or not they built their nest in the same place over my dogs beds.They seemed to understand that the dogs would protect them.

    Over the last few days we have had a female in the garage .She manages to get in but can’t get out as the louvres were replaced a few years back.It looks like i have to remove the fly screen and leave the sliding window open.

    If the Sunbirds build a nest again it will be nice to have them back.

  9. There too was a sunbird couple that built their nest in my planter. Unfortunately, the chick’s tongue got stuck in the nest while climbing out for the first time. The father actually flew to another window and kinda screamed at me boldly. I know it was communicating with me because it was unusually loud and looked directly at me from a very close distance! I didn’t know these little birds are that intelligent.

    I managed to free the chick and brought it to the vet in an attempt to save the poor thing but it died the same evening from a necrotic tongue. The parents returned several times after that and eventually destroyed the nest.

    Earlier this month though, I discovered another couple started building their nest in almost the same spot!

  10. We are up in the tropical Qld and have many birds around, also at least two breeding couples of sunbirds, building nests all year around, reusing old ones after renovations as well. Sometimes butcher birds and tree snakes destroy the nest and wild weather does not help. If we find a demaged nest, on the ground or still hanging up we always check for eggs or chicks and often there are still intakt or alive. If the nest still hangs but it looks messed up and the adult birds are still around the entrance can be easily cleared with bland tweezers (as little as possible touching with hands). Often the female returns and goes on with her breeding business. If the nest is on the ground, we do exactly the same – clear the entrance, check it, and if eggs or chicks still ok, we hang it back up close by on a secure spot. Most of the time this works fine with an happy ending. We also have moved nests in building progress when the spot selected by the birds is not safe … too low or such as we have cats. This works well too.
    We monitor the nests when active and keep an eye on the breeding cycle and we are always very happy when one or two chicks are make it.

  11. How lovely, so much good information..
    We are into our 2nd round of yellow sunbird breeding . First time was off a string under the eaves. Sadly the nest was predated and unsuccessful. We didn’t know how to help. All the stuffing had been pulled out. This time a year later the nest a couple have built their nest off the end of a tree fern frond outside our bedroom French doors. We get to watch her nesting and eagerly await the eggs to hatch. Our dogs seem to know and keep watch protecting the nest. We hope the butcher birds and kookaburra don’t get access as they seem to be aware. We back onto a rainforest and her nest opening faces it.
    She has been sitting for 2 weeks now and eggs should be close to hatching. In six days time we have a floor sander coming to sand the deck and stain it. A small deck is right under her nest and shouldn’t take too long to sand it. Eggs should be hatched. My question is how destressing will this be for her?

  12. It would be distressing but I am sure the birds would be able to overcome the intrusion. Let us know about the outcome.

  13. The deck sanding is completed and mummy sunbird seemed to handle it ok continuing to feed and sit throughout.

    Fortunately the man doing the sanding was very careful and mindful of the nest.

  14. Our house backs onto a rainforest and we have numerous bird activity including Butcher birds and Kookaburras. Sunbirds have built their nest facing rainforest hanging off a tree fern frond outside bedroom windows. In full view!!!
    These birds have been interested and more so now that there is a chick in the nest. We and our dogs have been on guard, but hard to maintain.
    I had a brainwave and set up a structure around the nest. This involved buying some retractable willow stick trellis from Bunnings. My husband attached it to the eaves in front and behind the nest and tree fern. This seems to have provided safety, looks good and natural and birdies are happy, they can fly through and under. We are close to chick becoming a fledgling and leaving the nest. Few days to go yet, so hopefully it will make it.

    A kookaburra is very interested and sits in a tree watching. The sunbirds warn he is there and I turn the hose on him to get rid of him, but he keeps coming back. Yesterday he did a full and fast swoop to the nest, however couldn’t get at it. Maybe the structure works? He’s back today.
    I have wrapped some fern fronds around the structure to give some camouflage and weather protection for nest.
    Fingers crossed it works and we have success. Tough gig. Birdies happy and mum and dad working hard on feeding junior.

  15. Thanks for a most interesting account.

  16. The baby sunbird is now a fledgling. Yesterday she was very active and spent the day half in and out of nest, preening herself (yes it is a girl) and being fed. She looked very keen to go. Kookaburra still hanging around and. I spent the day chasing it with hose/water. Baby is safe behind structure and parents coming and going with ease. I think she will leavethe nest very soon.

  17. Today she left the nest. Didn’t see her go. Mum left early and Came back with food. I didn’t see the chick again although I did think I saw something small and yellow fly away. Dad came checked nest and flew back and fwd to nest. Mum also came back and checked nest.
    Midday the parents are calling, flying back to nest, checking around house and even flew into house and checked rooms. I think they have lost her???
    I also think she left the nest without her parents knowing. Only hope the bad birds didn’t get her.
    Haven’t seen the kookaburra at all this morning. 😟 And would have known if he was out there.
    Is this normal for young birds to fly away unknown??

  18. Fledging chicks need to be urged by the adults to leave the nest. The latter may lure them with food to get them to leave. The first flight out of the nest is a major step forward after which the adults need to show the fledgling how to forage, how to avoid predators, etc. I don’t think the chick would leave by itself. Is it possible that the chick was predated? Or lost its balance and fell off the nest?

  19. No to both. Definitely not predated and did not fall out of nest. Nest outside bedroom French doors. Mummy left nest 6am. I opened one door and then watched nest for a while. Didn’t see the chick, but heard a few cheeps. Parents came back a couple of times and looked like they were feeding her. Unusual not to see the chick then.
    Parents seem quite distressed and have been looking for her.
    Is it possible she flew yesterday afternoon and mum slept in an empty nest all night. We were out but all seemed normal when we returned late afternoon. Can’t believe we got this far with it to lose her at last minute.

  20. Most probably mum would not sleep in an empty nest if the chick is absent!

  21. Oh dear. I have grave fears for the little one.
    I parents have been hanging in the rainforest trees at back of house and making a racket if the butcher birds or kookaburra comes around. Is it possible that the chick is with them and they are still feeding her. Maybe they are teaching her how to avoid predators. I just haven’t seen them with the chick???

    Odd behaviour this morning. A female sunbird was feeding from the heleconias in our gardenthis morning and out of the blue the male flew in and attacked her. She flew away. Don’t think it was his mate. Maybe he was being territorial and protective cause he has young??

    I really enjoy your helpful advise.

  22. I think I have seen the baby with parents. 2 females and male. Also baby joined dad in a hose bath. Yea 🐥

  23. If the baby is united with its parents, good news then. All’s well that ends well.

  24. Love these observations! A pair of sunbirds nested on my balcony in Cairns in early 2011, but unfortunately their chick died the day it hatched, which was very distressing for the parents and me. The skeleton appeared to have been picked clean – possibly by ants? I don’t know what else would have eaten the flesh and left the skeleton and feathers. Happily, a second pair are now nesting on my washing line and at least one chick (possibly two) hatched today! Approximately 17-20 days after the female laid (I was away for a few days so not sure exactly when she laid). I’m happy to report it has survived the first day and I will be keeping a keen eye out for the butcher bird that shows up every evening and chasing him away! I don’t think he’s seen the nest because it’s tucked away, but I’m pretty sure he’s taken one of my frogs before :-(

  25. Sad news, when I checked on the nest first thing this morning, the butcherbird was in the middle of eating the chicks (there WERE two). He must have heard the chicks for the first time while mum was off foraging this morning, because otherwise I’m sure he’d have gone for them sooner. I chased him off but not quickly enough. Both parents have returned to the nest multiple times today, clearly distressed at the loss of their chicks, and the mother bird even sat in it for a minute or two a few hours after it happened. Very sad day.

  26. Yes, sad indeed. Any interesting images?

  27. Leonie Lovell

    Sunbird just started building nest on crystal in doorway which is not practical as it is more inside house than out & bird flies into house. With ceiling fans this is not good. Have move crystal to better spot. Sunbird just came my in looking for it and fluttered around for ages, not happy. Will it find the crystal it started to build on. Moved about 5mt away

  28. Francine Rowsell

    Our Sunbird chicks hatched for Christmas. Yesterday one was teetering and fell out of nest . It looked to small to fly. We put it back in nest . Dad was still feeding him and mum the one underneath. Today he was out the nest again. We didn’t touch him mum and dad upset. After about half an hour he fluttered and ended up on his back. By the time I checked he was breathing his last and absolutely covered in lice. We think the other little one may have died to as the nest is riddled with lice. Do we remove dead baby and how can we get rid of lice. Will they come back to nest . It is between our garage and patio. Very protected. Feeling sad as they were wonderful parents. She has only been back a couple of times this afternoon.

    • Hi Francine, I’m wondering how your baby went? I have a similar issue (im in Cairns, FNQ) our the first baby successfully left the nest last Sunday and was much bigger in size as the the remaining chic. Chic 2 has fallen out a few times and we’ve successfully put her back in the nest. Now I’m back at work I’m worried the dog might get her. (Or not, might be too small) she still looks too small to fly but clearly mm is encouraging her to.

  29. Judy Raft

    Can’t believe it. We had just removed protection structure from around the treefern and nest. Approx 3 weeks after last successful nesting, hatching and fledge the sunbird parents came back and happily did some maintenance on existing nest then flew away. Around 17/12 mama came back and started sitting. This is the same nest hanging on the end of a tree fern frond outside bedroom glass doors. We had to put the structure back up. Mama happy, protected from predators.

  30. Judy Raft

    Babies hatched over Xmas/NY period and both parents busily feeding. The weather turned very nasty – storms, strong winds and heavy rain for 4 days and nights. Such a good mama, she stayed with her babies the whole time and the nest is still intact. We have discovered there are two hungry chicks. Both parents braving the weather and feeding. It seems that the predators have not been aware of the nesting yet, however there are a lot of butcherbirds around. No more than usual though. And we have been visited by a couple of kookaburras who have had a splash in our pool. Fingers crossed we have a successful fledge. Should be another week away.

  31. Successful fledge. Just saw the parent sunbirds coach the 2 chicks from the nest and fly into the cluster of lipstick palms nearby in our backyard. The chicks are still in there and mama is feeding them. The forest appears to be very quiet and no predators. Papa sunbird is keeping a close eye over the area. So beautiful and we feel so privileged to witness this.

  32. I am in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Had a couple of sunbirds build a nest on my hanging artificial orchid. That was abt mid December 16. I only saw 1 egg and eventually 1 chick 1 week ago. Wife said there were 2 chicks. This morning at 6am, the mother still flew in and out of the nest. At abt 11am, wife said the chicks were missing. I confirmed it at 5pm. Very surprised. The chicks definitely weren’t ready to fly. Last week the eyes weren’t even open. No other animal threat was evident. Very surprised and sad. Really not sure what has happened.

  33. Most likely chick taken by a predator… see http://www.besgroup.org/2007/08/06/black-naped-oriole-egg-raider-and-chick-killer/

    • I believe that must be the most probable reason. I can’t imagine the adult birds carrying the chicks. However I am really which predator to put my finger on. The Yellow Orioles are nearby on a large tree. But they never come to my house. No cats either. Crows may be another culprit.

  34. A new pair of sunbirds have used the old nest as their home. Female has been in the nest for abt 1 week. We can tell it’s a different pair because the color on both the birds differ from the previous pair. I hope this time it’s a success.

  35. Thanks for the update.

  36. Hi could you please let me know if sunbird will return to old nest where they had 3 successful hatching but the last set of babies were eaten by green ants. Do you think they will return or should I remove their nest?

    • Yes, they usually return to the old nest. They need to do some repairs, though.

  37. Hi, we have a sunbird couple who have had several successful nestings in our patio in Cairns, Nth QLD. Last year, their nestlings were taken by a tree snake which was heartbreaking and they didn’t nest with us for a year. Then, almost to the day in November they returned to renovate the nest. She had two eggs and bravely sat with them every night, then yesterday they began acting strangely by hovering in front of the nest and calling loudly etc. She sat in the nest last night but today she hasn’t returned, no sign of them. The eggs are still in there but one seems to have a small puncture in it. Would anyone know what may have happened? We are assuming that the nest may have been too hot as there is less shade over that area now due to some trees being trimmed back.

  38. Hi All,
    Thanks so much for the information shared on this website.

    I live in Durban, South Africa and I am priviledged to have a sunbird nesting on the netting of my trellis for the second consecutive year and she is most welcome to return annually. We do have a problem though as her nest material appears to fall the moment she tries to tuck it into the plant that she has chosen as her base. She is really busy at the building and her bringing in of nesting materials is about a minute apart. It is really heartbreaking to watch it all flutter down and get caught in a screen below. From your experiences do you think that she will get better at doing her home building?

  39. Hi Goldie, sorry, no explanation forthcoming so far.

  40. Hi Neela – I am sure the sunbird will improve on its nest building abilities with time. How about sending some images and a brief account so that we can post your experience in this website?

    • Hello BESG,

      Thank you for getting back to me and the words of encouragement. I certainly look forward to witnessing better nesting skills next December. I am happy to send some pics through.
      Please feel free to edit the content below.

      Just a little background on my garden and this little sunbird. I have been living in this townhouse complex for the last 7 years and the gardens are usually very small and often manicured. I am nature loving and love waking up to bird song. I have planted indigenous plants to attract birds but few birds actually come through due to the lack of adequate vegetation throughout the suburb. I do get a sunbird couple visitin when the plants that they feed on are flowering (I will send a pic of one that is in bloom now). Last year there was an attempt at nest building as well but the result was the same.

      Now for an update, my little Lady Sunbird is still at it and not doing much better than the other day. I still hear her, but not as much as before. She chose an epiphyte to attach her nest onto and tucks her building materials underneath which still just flutters down. I do not see the male around.
      Unfortunately we have had gusts of winds of about 35km per hour as well as rain in the last couple of days which has been destroying the drape/veil of nest building material forming below her chosen spot.

      I must add that she does protest quite a bit (and rightly so!) when I try to watch her from outside so I am relegated to watching her from indoors behind a curtain.

      I took a couple of pics a few days ago which I am happy to send and will take another pic tomorrow. Please tell me how to attach the pics to this message.

      Once again, please feel free to edit content.

      Thank you and kind regards

  41. Hello BESG

    Just an update. My diligent lady sunbird is still at it but still no remote sign of a nest developing.

    I did see the male sunbird just now and I am wondering if it’s almost time for the egg laying. He sat on a branch and sang a pretty loud beautiful song for a few seconds.

    I really wish that I was able to do something that will help, like place some sort of nest nearby for my special little sunbird to use. Maybe next year I will make a little hammock below before she arrives.

    With kind regards

  42. Thanks Neela for the update.

  43. In early December Mrs sunbird started building her nest right above our bbq table. Took 4 days to complete. Two eggs were laid. Not sure when as I was away. Both eggs hatched on Boxing Day. Chicks were doing well and cheeping loudly yesterday afternoon. We had a storm with lots of lightning so mummy bird didn’t feed as late as usual. She was in nest at 10.30 pm. Got up at 3.30 am to find her gone. Unusual. When it was light enough I noticed a little foot sticking out of nest. Dead baby 😭. Mumma came back and was trying to pull chick’s body from nest. She’d tug then look at me. I felt she was asking for help but didn’t interfere. She eventually pulled it out and flew away with its body. Checked nest and was empty. Absolutely devastated. Why did they die? Would they have been starved because she didn’t feed for as long yesterday arvie? Would the storm have anything to do with it? So sad 😞

    • Sorry Wendy, its heartbreaking. Hopefully success next time.

      • Thank you, Neela. Maybe not until spring now. Have left the nest in place in case they come back. 😞

  44. Hello,
    Just an update of barely any progress; my wannabe momma is still busy at bringing her nesting materials but still no iota of a nest. This has been going on for over a week.

    Yesterday, I saw the male in the evening. He sang his lovely little song. They are not quite comfortable with me around but are accepting after a while whilst giving me the beady eye until I vacate their space.

    I chatted to the guys at the office and my sunbirds are white bellied sunbirds. She may be a bit of a newbee at nest building so I am hoping for some master nest building and little chicks this coming December.

    Chat soon.

  45. Hello,

    It’s exactly a month that my sunbird has been building her nest. I first noticed her on 23 December. I did not see her this morning but i did see her yesterday in the late afternoon, she was still bringing her nesting material. I think that although she is still building, her effort, of late, is less intensive. She still does not have any idea of technique although her materials do appear to be the right stuff.

    On the weekend i had my assistant around and I was quite happy to see her a bit unperturbed with him being about 1,5m away from her. The male sunbird was around too and sang his beautiful song before going on his way.

    Thats it for now with the sunbirds, I do hope that they return this December.
    I recently noticed ring necked doves, which hang around my garden all day, nesting high up in my tree and I am hoping that they will be safe up there. My home environment is a shared tenure with all sorts :-)

    To BESG, Thank you for providing this platform for sharing and learning from each other, i certainly learned a lot.

    Thanks again and warm regards,

  46. Further update appreciated. Thanks Neela.

  47. We have a nest under our house with one lonely chick looking out.
    The parent (I can’t tell, which one) has been so active for weeks building the nest, sitting on the eggs, feeding the chick. The sound of high pitched chirping and wings buzzing has been beautiful.
    I haven’t seen the parents for a couple days, silence. I hope they’re coming back. I walked around the yard and could see an adult bird flying around, I hope it’s from the same family. No activity under the house for days.

  48. Quite a high percentage of nesting fail… for various reasons.

  49. Hi
    We have Sunbirds nesting within 350mm of our laundry window here at Mackay, North Queensland in NE Australia.
    There are 2 Sunbird chicks being fed by a female (all yellow breast no blue back). They seem to have no fear of us.

    It is our 4th Sunbird nest over 4 years with the birds building nest very close to where we constantly pass close by.

    We have had 2 successful Sunbird broods (over the years ) raised to a flyaway status. The third one we missed somehow but suspect they were ok too.

    We put this down to OUR Sunbirds using us a “protection” against Kookaburras and Butcherbirds which predate on Sunbirds.

    Is this facet of Sunbird behaviour seen in Malaysia?

    Grahame and Chris

  50. Sunbirds do nest along corridors of high-rise apartments but I am not sure whether they use people as a “protection” against predators. If you could send me (fernnybird@gmail.com) some images, I could post your story and maybe attract someone who has the same experience?

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