Illustration of Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, 1846

This illustration was photographed from a book held in the Booth Museum: The Natural History of the Nectariniadae, or Sun Birds published in 1846 by Sir William Jardine. Mrs Gould’s Sunbird (Aethopyga gouldi) is found across a wide range of Asia, from the Himalayas to Northern China and Vietnam.

What can we see?

Perching

Sunbirds are a group of mostly very small passerine (perching, vocal) birds. They are in the group Nectariniadae, which feed primarily on nectar from flowers.

While they are very pretty, sunbirds do not have an attractive song, so are not sought after as caged birds.

Males

Sunbirds show strong sexual dimorphism, which means that the males and females have numerous different physical characteristics.

Male sunbirds tend to be very brightly coloured and iridescent, with longer tail feathers to attract the females. The illustrations in the printed version of the book have a glossy finish which mimics this iridescence. Sadly it isn’t possible to capture this with a photograph.

Females

The olive green female may look duller than the male, but she has an important evolutionary function.

The females are the primary care-givers of their young, building the nest and incubating the eggs with little help from the male, so their dull green camouflages them on the nest. The male assists with rearing the young once born.

Beaks

The beaks of sunbirds have evolved to allow them to feed from tubular shaped flowers. They also have brush shaped tongues to help lap up the nectar.

They were once thought to be close relations to hummingbirds (found in the Americas) as these adaptations were shared. However, DNA analysis has shown they are actually only distantly related, and these features are examples of convergent evolution – similar structures evolving independently of each other.

Name

Mrs Gould’s sunbird is named after the artist Elizabeth Gould. Her name is preserved in both the common English name for the bird and the Latin name we can see here. The Latin name is used in the Linnaean system of classification that is a standard for natural scientists across the world.

Elizabeth Gould illustrated several major works of natural history, including Charles Darwin’s famous Voyage of the Beagle. Her husband, John Gould, was a famous ornithologist. The bird was deliberately named Mrs Gould’s Sunbird to make clear it was named after the artist and not her husband.

Author Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

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