Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus)

Cover image: Dusky Sunbird by Desire Darling – Kamanjab Rest Camp, Namibia –  BirdPix No. 13649

Identification

The Dusky Sunbird is a medium sized sunbird This species is sexually dimorphic, the breeding males are more colourful than females.

Breeding males are distinctive and easily recognisable. The head, back, throat and chest are glossy black and the belly is white. The tail is blackish, with a slight blue iridescence. Breeding males also have orange pectoral tufts, but these are seldom visible unless the bird is excited or displaying.

Identification of breeding male Dusky Sunbird
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus)
Rooiklip Farm, Namibia
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

Non-breeding males and males in eclipse plumage resemble females and have grey-brown upperparts. They sometimes show a few blackish iridescent feathers. The undersides are whitish with a variable, glossy black patch or stripe on the throat and breast.

Dusky Sunbird
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Damaraland, Namibia
Photo by Gerald Gaigher

Females have plain greyish-brown heads and upperparts. The underparts, from the chin to the vent are white to off-white. The underparts contrast with the greyish-brown cheeks and upperparts. The tail is blackish.

Cinnyris fuscus
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Juveniles are similar to adult females, but have browner upper parts and their underparts are washed washed yellow. Juvenile males have variable blackish feathering on the throat.

Breeding males are unmistakable, but females are more problematic to identify. They are most likely to confused with the female White-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala) or the female Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus). The former has a faintly streaked (not plain) breast, and the latter has a darker grey-brown throat and breast and lacks the contrast between the upper and undersides. Females of these species are best identified by the accompanying male.

Status and Distribution

The Dusky Sunbird is Locally common and near-endemic to southern Africa. It occurs throughout the arid and semi-arid arid western parts of South Africa. It ranges north through south-western Botswana (avoiding the central Kalahari), throughout most of Namibia and into Angola along the arid coastal plain.

The Dusky Sunbird is scarce in in southern Kalahari and the Little Karoo, with occasional records south of the Cape Fold Mountains and to the south towards the west coast to Cape Town.

SABAP2 distribution map - Dusky Sunbird
SABAP2 distribution map for Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus)  – May 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Dusky Sunbird is not threatened and its choice of arid habitats makes it relatively safe from human interference.

Habitat

The Dusky Sunbird’s preferred habitat is rocky outcrops with taller vegetation, as well as drainage line scrub or woodland in the succulent and Nama Karoo. It also inhabits semi-arid coastal plains with sand dunes. It favours rocky habitats or broken ground, possibly because flowering succulents such as Aloes and crassulas are more common in such areas.

Habitat for Dusky Sunbird
Areas with rocky outcrops and taller vegetation are a favoured habitat of the Dusky Sunbird.
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

It avoids the ‘sand sea’ of the central Namib Desert, but occurs elsewhere within the Namib Desert, provided there is some tall vegetation. The Dusky Sunbird also readily enters gardens and orchards.

Behaviour

Cinnyris fuscus
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Ai Aiba Painting Lodge, Namibia
Photo by Lappies Labuschagne

The Dusky Sunbird is mainly a sedentary resident and does not show any regular seasonal movements. As with most birds of arid country, it is nomadic in response to the availability of food, which in turn, is dependant on rainfall. The Dusky Sunbird is capable of moving large distances in search of resources. During drought periods it irrupts into neighbouring, more mesic regions such as the coastal regions of the Western Cape, and into the North West Province.

Dusky Sunbird
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Dusky Sunbird is an active, restless species and is usually encountered singly or in pairs. Larger groups may aggregate at major nectar sources where it often associates with other sunbird species like Scarlet-chested Sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis), White-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala) and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus). The flight is fast and direct, but not as erratic as in other sunbirds.

Cinnyris fuscus
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Photo by Jason Boyce

The Dusky Sunbird generally probes for nectar while perched but may also hover for brief moments, often to snatch insects out of spider webs. They move quickly from flower to flower. The diet consists mostly of nectar and is supplemented with arthropods, especially spiders and small insects like flies, moths, caterpillars, bugs and beetles. Insect prey is mostly gleaned from flowering plants but they also hawk insects out of the air. Important food plants include Vachelia (Acacia) species, various aloes including Kraal Aloe (Aloe claviflora) and the Quiver-tree (Aloidendron dichotoma), also Leafless Wormbush/Black Storm (Cadaba aphylla), Crassula species, mesembryanthemums, honey-thorns (Lycium spp) and mistletoes (Loranthaceae). Dusky Sunbirds also feed on the nectar of a range of alien and garden plants such as Wild Tobacco (Nicotiana glauca). Drinks water on occasion, mostly on on warm days.

Dusky sunbird
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus)
Pofadder district, Northern Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

The Dusky Sunbird has a long breeding season from August to March but breeding can take place at any time of the year. This is indicative of opportunistic breeding linked to rainfall. If rains come early, some males will attempt to breed while still in eclipse plumage. Males aggressively defend their territories which, on occasion, may lead to fighting. The nest is built entirely by the female while the male remains nearby to defend his territory.

Cinnyris fuscus
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Klein Aus, Namibia
Photo by Maans Booysen

The nest is oval, with a side-top entrance. It is constructed out of dry grass, plant fibres, bark and dry leaves. The nest is bound together with spider web and it is lined with soft seed fibres or animal hair. The nest is usually placed in a low shrub 40 to 90 cm above the ground. Females sometimes build several preliminary nests before egg laying starts. Some nests can be abandoned before laying if conditions become unfavourable. Two to three eggs are laid per clutch. The incubation period lasts just 13 days and all incubation is performed by the female. Nestlings are fed by both parents but they are brooded by the female only. The nestling period lasts around 13 days.

Dusky Sunbird
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus) 
Steytlerville district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Pamela Kleiman

Dusky Sunbirds are double-brooded in high-rainfall years. This sunbird is sometimes parasitised by Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas).

Further Resources

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Cobus Elstadt, Desire Darling, Gerald Gaigher, Jason Boyce, Johan Van Rooyen, Lappies Labuschagne, Maans Booysen and Pamela Kleiman is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Namakwasuikerbekkie (Afrikaans); Souimanga fuligineux (French); Roethoningzuiger (Dutch); Rußnektarvogel (German); Beija-flor-sombrio (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Dusky Sunbird Cinnyris fuscus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/06/04/dusky-sunbird-cinnyris-fuscus/

A list of bird species in this format is available here.

Bird identificationbirding

Cinnyris fuscus
Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus)
Pofadder district, Northern Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!

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