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Avian Allies: The Unexpected Role of Birds as Pollinators

JUNE 16, 2023
Hummingbird
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a green bird feeding on nectar from white flowers

Every week in June, to celebrate Pollinator Week (June 18 - 24), we are going beyond the widely appreciated world of bees to explore several other major groups of insect pollinators and others whose pollination efforts often go overlooked or unsung. For many folks with access to a yard, backyard birding is an extremely popular pastime. Setting up a feeder and seeing which local or migratory bird species you can draw in is often a healthy and rewarding way to interact with your yard. But did you know that some birds play a role as important pollinators? In this article, we will consider some of our planet's pollinating birds and discuss some ways you can attract these and many other species of pollinators to your yard.

Bird Pollination: An Overview

hummingbird visiting a large red flower

We are not wrong to think of most birds as primarily feeding on seeds (granivores) or small insects (insectivores). In North American backyards especially, most of our visiting birds fall into one or both of these camps. Members of these groups are not common pollinators and will only occasionally visit flowers at certain times of year when other food options are scarce, relying on flower nectar mainly to supplement their diet. These species may contribute to the plant pollination process but they are not officially "pollinating birds", as such.

A handful of other bird species, however, rely heavily on flowering plants as their main source of food, and supplement meals of sweet nectar with insects. Birds within these groups have specially adapted beaks that allow them to reach into flowers to reach the sweet nectar within. As they do so, pollen grains adhere to their heads and necks. Pollination occurs as some of these same pollen grains are brushed off on the next flower that these birds visit.

Do birds pollinate more than bees?

While it's challenging to compare the total pollination contributions of birds versus bees, generally speaking, bees are considered the most prolific pollinators on a global scale. That said, particular plants have evolved specifically to feature bird pollinated flowers and may not be effectively pollinated by any other organism.

Additionally, one advantage birds have over bees is their ability to cover a wider physical range. Birds can travel greater distances, which can be crucial for spreading plant genetic material across larger areas, thus promoting greater genetic diversity among plant populations.

Therefore, while bees may pollinate more individual flowers overall, bird pollination is still essential in specific ecosystems and plant species. Both groups have a significant impact on plant life and on the health and diversity of global ecosystems.

What types of birds are pollinators?

Nectar eating birds focus on a handful of plant species that are specially adapted to facilitate bird pollination. The chief pollinating bird groups include the Hummingbirds, Sunbirds, and Honeyeaters.

Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)

A hummingbird feeding from Monarda

Hummingbirds, with their bright colors and acrobatic flight, play a pivotal role as pollinators particularly in the Americas. Their long, slender bills and tongues are perfectly adapted to allow them to drink nectar from deep within tubular flowers. Unlike bees, hummingbirds do not have special structures to carry pollen. Instead, their rapid movement and vast feeding range work to their advantage, allowing them to pollinate plants over a wider geographical area. Hummingbirds are especially drawn to red flowers over other plants.

Sunbirds (Nectariniidae)

an olive backed sunbird on a branch

Sunbirds are important bird pollinators particularly in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific regions. These birds, often compared to the New World's hummingbirds due to their similar feeding habits, have a penchant for nectar-rich flowers. Unlike hummingbirds, Sunbirds possess long, down-curved beaks and a specialized brush-tipped tongue, both adept for reaching into curved flowers to extract nectar.

Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae)

a blue-faced honeyeater on a branch

Honeyeaters are important pollinators in Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. Like Sunbirds, honeyeaters have specialized brush-tipped tongues and long, sometimes curved beaks, perfect for reaching into flowers to extract their sweet reward.

Bird-Pollinated Flowers

Of our planet's many plant species, bird-pollinated flowers - also known as ornithophilous flowers - have evolved certain characteristics that specifically attract birds. These can include bright colors (especially red, orange, and pink), large amounts of nectar, sturdy structures to support a bird's weight, and a floral shape that fits a bird's beak. Depending on what is native to your area, adding some of the following species of flowering plants will help attract pollinators to your yard, whether they are insects or birds:

Fuchsia: These flowers, with their distinct, drooping, bell-like shape and bright colors, are attractive to hummingbirds.

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens): This vine's tubular flowers are well suited for hummingbirds.

Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans): The large, trumpet-shaped, bright orange to red flowers of this vine are popular with many species of hummingbirds.

Bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.): These Australian native plants have brush-shaped flowers filled with nectar, attracting honeyeaters and other nectar-feeding birds.

Lobelia: Some species, like Lobelia tupa and Lobelia cardinalis, have long tubular flowers perfectly designed for birds such as hummingbirds.

Agave: In their native desert habitats, agave flowers are often pollinated by hummingbirds.

While birds can be attracted to certain types of flowers, local habitat and bird species will greatly determine what kind of bird-flower interactions you might see in a specific area. Remember: it is far more important and valuable to add plant species that are native to your region and happen to be bird pollinated plants than it is to add any kind of ornamental plants, even if they do attract birds as pollinators.

Learn more about other pollinators in this series:

Bees

Flies

Wasps

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