Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Bird Pollination

An adult male Eastern Spinebill sitting on a grevillea bush outside my study window

I've been at the desk a bit too much recently, but it is has turned out quite entertaining as our garden in Canberra is busy with birds - and they have been a great distraction. Right outside the window, about a metre from me as I type, there is a small flock of Eastern Spinebills Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris feeding on a flowering grevillea. Spinebills are a species of honeyeater, and like their name suggests, they specialize in feeding on nectar, which grevilleas produce in abundance.

An adult spinebill dips its bill into a grevillea flower for nectar

An immature spinebill dips its bill into the same grevillea flower.
These birds are about sparrow size.

Grevilleas are part of the protea family and they have a highly adapted form of flower. The inflorescences - the flower spikes - have multiple flower heads held in tight clusters and with over three hundred species, they come in lots of shapes and sizes. They have evolved to be pollinated by different species of birds, insects or small marsupials, such as sugar gliders, but especially honeyeaters. There are over 60 species of honeyeater, mostly in Australia and the two families have similar geographic spreads in the general Australia/Oceania area. So, the honeyeaters are probably the main pollinators.

A Spinebill hovers to feed from a pendulous inflorescence.
Honeyeaters have evolved to feed on nectar like hummingbirds, but they are not so well adapted for hovering flight. However, they can also creep through the branches and feed safely under cover away from predators, and  humming birds can't do that, or do they need to?

Grevillea flowers have an exaggeratedly long style which unfolds with a sticky pad of pollen grains around the stigma at the tip, the pollen-presenter. The pollen is transferred from the anthers to the style as the flower opens and there are some unfolded styles in the first two photographs above, they are the curling loops above the petals. The nectar sac is cunningly concealed between fused petals and can only be reached via a slim opening. An opening which the spinebills can probe into with their fine long, curved bills, but many other animals can't gain access - this pollination strategy is selective towards species that can transfer the pollen. As the birds dip their bill into the nectar, they touch the pollen-presenters and a deposit of sticky pollen is left on their crown. Then, when the birds fly to another grevillea plant, they brush against another flower's pollen-presenter and the pollen is passed onto the style and into the stigma. And that's it, all done, the flower has been pollinated.

A Spinebill is dabbed on the head by a pollen-presenter as it feeds from a flower.
This bird is a juvenile, recognised by the fold of yellow skin at the base of its bill, the gape, which is a leftover feature of a fledgling. It will soon lose this, and the base of its bill will darken too as it grows into adult plumage during its first year of life.

Pollen sticks to the crown of this spinebill's head as it dips between a crowd of pollen-presenters

Spinebills, like other honeyeaters which are specialized nectar-feeders, have brush-tipped tongues, an adaptation that allows the birds to lap up the nectar from the tight space inside the nectar sac.They don't gain much per flower-visit, so these birds are busy when feeding, and they are busiest in the morning and late afternoon. Which is fine by me as I see them first thing and then at the end of a long desk session, without too much distraction during the middle of the day.

The tip of this spinebill's tongue can be seen as the white part protruding from the end of the bill - it's very delicate


  1. Some great shots, Stuart. Were they taken through the window or did you force yourself to leave the desk? We've only just had our first spinebill return to the garden this week after being absent since last spring.

  2. Some shots were through the glass, then I thought I should grab a few from outside. We have a pair all year round, and these might be them with some of their offspring. They collect nesting material from our garden, especially chicken feathers, but nest a few gardens over. They are feeding literally on the other side of a pane of glass away from me!