The breeding male malachite sunbird, which has very long central tail feathers, is 25 cm long, and the shorter-tailed female 15 cm. The adult male is metallic green when breeding, with blackish-green wings with small yellow pectoral patches. In non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, the male's upperparts are brown apart from the green wings and tail, the latter retaining the elongated feathers. The underparts in eclipse plumage are yellow, flecked with green. The female has brown upperparts and dull yellow underparts with some indistinct streaking on the breast. Her tail is square-ended. The juvenile resembles the female.
Habitat and Distribution
This large sunbird is found in hilly fynbos (including protea stands as well as areas with aloes) and cool montane and coastal scrub, up to 2,800m altitude in South Africa. It also occurs in parks and gardens (often nesting within those located in the Highveld). It is resident, but may move downhill in winter. Found from the highlands of Ethiopia southwards to South Africa.
This species, like most sunbirds, feed mainly on nectar, although they will also take insects, especially when feeding young. This sunbird may hunt in a similar manner to a flycatcher, hawking for insect prey from a perch. Most sunbird species can take nectar by hovering like a hummingbird, but usually perch to feed most of the time. As a fairly large sunbird, the malachite sunbird is no exception. They have long thin down-curved bills and brush-tipped tubular tongues, both adaptations to nectar feeding. Some plant species from which malachite sunbirds feed include many Aloe species, such as Aloe broomii, Aloe ferox and Aloe arborescens, and Protea species, such as Protea roupelliae as well as various other bird-pollinated plants such as Leonotis and Strelitzia.
This species is monogamous. The oval nest is usually suspended, as with most sunbirds, or built in a bush. The female incubates one to three dark-blotched greenish eggs for two weeks. The chicks are fed by both parents until fledging; they will continue to return to the nest to roost. The malachite sunbird is often double-brooded, but may be parasitised by Klaas's cuckoo or red-chested cuckoo. It is territorial and aggressive when nesting, but highly gregarious when not breeding, forming flocks of more than 1000 birds.
Calls and Songs
The call is a loud tseep-tseep, and the male malachite sunbird has a twittering song, often accompanied by pointing its head upward and displaying the yellow pectoral tufts with its wings half open. Males also have an elaborate display flight.