As in large parts of its range, the Fork-tailed Sunbird is the only common sunbird at Nonggang, Guangxi, where the photos in this post were taken.
Getting the photos is not difficult – just wait next to a suitable flowering plant, and a sunbird will show up every 15 minutes or so. Though I have not had a chance to take photos of hummingbirds yet, it is likely that sunbirds are the more photographer-friendly species as they sometimes perch to feed rather than hover.
Both male sunbirds and their American equivalent, male hummingbirds, are often very colorful and attractive – possibly an indication of convergent evolution (similar pressure on the males resulting from the females’ desire to mate with smart-looking males).
A female: no forked tail, not much color. No wonder that in the past, sunbird parents often preferred male chicks.
Similarly, both bird families have a distinct significance for humans.
“The Aztecs recognized in the hummingbird all the attributes necessary to be a good warrior and this bird became the main symbol of their principal god… who guided them through a journey to a promised land” (source).
Sunbirds (though Olive-backed ones, not Fork-tailed) are among the bird species depicted in reliefs of the Indonesian Borodur Temple built around 750-850 AD, representing “a symbol of humans who went on a spiritual journey and carried out the learning process” (source) – which sounds rather cringeworthy to me but presumably not to many other people.
In general, it seems sunbirds are doing a bit better in co-existing with humans than many other families. It helps that they do not have a pleasant song and are somewhat difficult to keep as cage birds.
And even now, new species of sunbirds are being discovered – though admittedly of the “they look pretty much exactly the same but somehow they are different” variety that does not do that much for me as a photographer rather than a genuine ornithologist.
The Fork-tailed Sunbird has the somewhat unfortunate Latin name of christinae, the culprit presumably being the discoverer of the species, Robert Swinhoe, who thought it a good idea to name a bird after his wife Christina.
On the other hand, maybe that name is still better than the English name – according to one source, “No sunbirds possess truly forked tails, even the fork-tailed sunbird … acquires its name from central tail feathers that are stretched out into a forked shape”. False advertising everywhere.
There also is an interesting study comparing the breeding behavior of this low-altitude species with a similar high-altitude one, the Fire-tailed Sunbird (not shown). Apparently, the Fire-tailed Sunbird copes with the harsher environment by producing fewer eggs and providing more parental care to nestlings – somewhat reminiscent of the choice of Chinese (and other) parents to only have one child.