The Red-billed Streamertail Hummingbird – Jamaica National Bird

1894 Jamaica Humming Bird
1894 British Royal Natural History, Jamaica Humming Bird

Introduction

Order: Apodiformes
Family: Trochilidae
Genus: Trochilus
Species: polytmus

The red-billed streamertail or red-billed streamertail hummingbird (Trochilus polytmus) is indigenous to our island and it is the national bird of Jamaica. This bird is the most abundant and widespread member of the hummingbird family in Jamaica, and it is also known as the Doctor Bird, Streamertail, Swallow-streamertail, Scissor-tail or Scissors tail Hummingbird, Western Streamertail, and Longtail Hummingbird.

The Tainos – the first inhabitants of Jamaica, who used bird feathers in their ceremonial head-dress and body decorations, also called the red-billed streamertail the ‘God Bird’, because they considered it to be the reincarnation of dead souls.

The great 19th century English Naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, who came to Jamaica in 1844, described the red-billed streamertail as the “gem of Jamaican ornithology“.  And in “For Your Eyes Only” (1960) – a collection of short stories by British author Ian Fleming, it states “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamertail or doctor hummingbird.”

The red-billed streamertail hummingbird (Trochilus polytmus), which lives only in Jamaica, is one of the most outstanding of all the species of hummingbirds. And I read that the beautiful feathers of the streamertail humming bird  have no counterpart in the entire bird population and they produce iridescent colours characterstic only of that family.

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Distribution

There are over 300 species of hummingbirds, and according to this link [www.beautyofbirds.com/hum…],  six hummingbird species are known to occur on the island of Jamaica.

Red-billed streamertails can be found throughout Jamaica, except in the far eastern parts of the island. Their population has declined in the eastern areas, and they have ceased to inhabit the extreme northeastern coastal areas, which are mostly inhabited by black-billed streamertails. They are resident (non-migratory) within their range.

It should be noted that the hummingbird genus Trochilus is split into two separate species – the red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) and the black-billed streamertail (Trochilus scitulus); and hybrids have been recorded in those areas where their populations overlap. The basic differences between the red-billed streamertails and the black-billed streamertails are the colors of their bills, sexual and aggressive behavior, song, and range.

The red-billed streamertail is found mostly in the western parts of Jamaica and is sometimes called the Western Streamertail
The black-billed Streamertail is only found in the humid eastern sections of Jamaica

Red-billed streamertails occupy a wide range of habitats. They are most common at altitudes of approximately 1000 m (3000 ft) above sea level, but range from coastal areas to even higher elevations. They are commonly found within, or along the edges of montane forests.

This species also occupies man-made habitats including plantations, parks, and gardens with suitable feeding flowers and hummingbird feeders.

All hummingbrids seem to favour the colour red, hence their red syrup filled feeders

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Description

I read that the red-billed streamertail male has iridescent emerald green body plumage, slightly darker on back. On the wings, the flight-feathers are dark brown to blackish. The forked tail is black with greatly elongated second outermost rectrices or streamers.

These long feathers are scalloped and fluted on the inside; and it is these feathers that make high whining sounds as the bird buzzes around. When the bird is perched, the streamers are crossed, (and because the streamers are often crossed like the old-fashioned coattails of doctors, it is also called the “Doctor Bird” in Jamaica).

The male’s outer tail feathers are longer than the bird itself and are important for maneuvering flight in catching aerial insects, moving around in crowded habitats, and chasing intruders. These tail feathers are the longest tail feathers of any hummingbird specie. I also read that streamertails with long and/or symmetrical streamers are better fliers than birds with asymmetrical and/or short tails.

The head of the male is black with elongated laterals crown feathers and ear-coverts extending beyond the nape. The straight bill is red with black tip. The eyes are dark brown. Legs and feet are blackish. The immature male is similar to the adult but it lacks the streamers.

On the other hand, the female red-billed streamertail has a grey-brown head, with green upperparts whereas underparts are white, with some green spots on breast sides and belly, and some slight spotting on the side of the throat.

Her tail has green central rectrices, while the others are dark blue with broad white tips. She lacks the streamers. She has a red bill which is duller than the male’s, with blackish distal part. The juvenile red-billed streamertail has black upper mandible with red only at bill base.

Age can be determined fairly accurately for this specie in a number of ways:

  • one way is by the color of the bill and the amount of black on it, both in the male and female. The amount of black on the tip of the bill varies according to the age of the bird – the older the bird the less black on the bill.
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  • Also, immature males do not possess the long streamers and their tail feathers are much duller in color.
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Behaviour

Red-billed streamertail hummingbirds are solitary in all aspects of life other than breeding; they neither live nor migrate in flocks; and there is no pair bond for this specie.

The male attracts and entices females by waving and showing off his long streamers. The male’s only involvement in the reproductive process is the actual mating with the female; and he will separate from the female immediately after copulation. One male may mate with several females, and in all likelihood, the female will also mate with several males.

Both the male and female are extremely territorial. Males establish feeding territories, where they aggressively chase away other males as well as large insects – such as bumblebees and hawk moths, that want to feed in their territory. They use aerial flights and intimidating displays to defend their territories.

The red-billed streamertail gives a sharp, loud, high-pitched ‘teeet-teeet’ or ‘tee-tee-tee’, a loud and metallic-sounding ‘ting, ting’ or ‘chink-chink’ and a prolonged ‘twink-twink-twink’ that has a dropping pitch at the end. These calls are mainly used to communicate during mating and when defending its territory. Calls are also used by the offspring during the latter part of their dependent development.

Apart from vocalizations, males produce a non-vocal sound using their streamers. Because they are scalloped and fluted on the inside, the streamers produce a whirring, humming sound when fluttered during flight.

The Red-billed streamertail is also known to bathe quite regularly, taking both sunbaths and water baths. Sunbathing is a behavior seen in males, especially among those that inhabit cool montane forests.

Video: A red-billed streamertail taking a bath using water droplets from the petals of the Ixora flower cluster

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The streamertail take water baths by splashing in shallow water including water found in bird baths and fountains. It also clings to rocks beside waterfalls, allowing its body to gather moisture and splash from the flowing water as they vibrate their wings and fluff their bodies.
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Feeding
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Primary Diet: herbivore, nectarivore
Animal Foods: insects
Plant Foods: nectar sap or other plant fluids
Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food

The red-billed streamertail needs a daily sugar consumption of up to half its body mass in order to fulfill the energy needs associated with hovering flight. Its main source of food is extremely sweet, high-calorie, high energy nectar taken from brightly colored, fragrant flowers of a wide variety of trees, herbs, shrubs and epiphytes. It visits flowers from all heights from 5 cm to 20 m above the ground.

The streamertail usually feeds on tubular-shaped flowers, inserting the long bill into the flower’s tube and then, using the long, straw-like tongue to collect the nectar (licking it up to 13 times per second). It feeds while hovering or while hanging on to the flower. The Bahinia tree, (aka “the poor man’s orchid”) is its favorite nectar source.

It also favors flowers with the highest sugar content (often red-colored and tubular-shaped) and seeks out, and aggressively protects those areas containing flowers with high energy nectar. The streamertail may also visit local hummingbird feeders for some sugar water, or drink out of bird baths or water fountains where it will either hover and sip water. The red-billed streamertail also consumes some small spiders and insects found 3 cm to 20 m above ground. It is more common for females to consume insects than males since insects provide the necessary protein during breeding periods to ensure the proper development of offspring.

Streamertails breed year-round, however, most nesting activities are observed between April through June, and a nesting female can capture up to 2,000 insects a day. Insects are often caught in flight (hawking); snatched off leaves, flowers, branches, or from spider webs.
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Conclusion

The red-billed streamertail is a known pollinator for many plants that cannot be pollinated by other animals, and it helps in the pollination of plants found in man-made habitats such as parks and gardens. The streamertail also plays a role in controlling the population of insects, and acts as predators to flying insects, spiders, and ants.

The streamertail is not a threat to humans and they can even be hand fed. They are, however, susceptible to parasites since the blood parasite Haemoproteus witti has been found in the blood of red-billed streamertail hummingbirds. It has no known predators.
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A Few Humming Bird Facts

  1. Unlike other birds, the hummingbird can rotate its wings in a circle and they are the only bird that can fly forwards, backwards, up, down ,sideways and hover in mid air.
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  2. Hummingbirds are very smart and they can remember every flower they have been to, and how long it will take a flower to refill.
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  3. Hummingbirds can see ultraviolet light.
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  4. Hummingbirds have very weak feet and can barely walk. They prefer to fly. Hummingbirds spend most of their life perching.
    Nb. The consistent hovering of the red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) has caused it to not use its feet for walking or climbing, but rather for perching, grasping, and clinging.
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  5. Hummingbirds can extend their long, skinny tonguest twice as far as their bill, which helps them reach nectar deep inside flowers. Hummingbirds do not drink though their beaks like a straw. They lap up nectar with their tongues.
    A young male red-billed streamertail sticking out his tongue

    Hummingbirds drink nectar using tongues that are so long that, when retracted, they coil up inside the birds’ heads, around their skulls and eyes. Hummingbirds have tiny hairs on the tip of the tongue to help lap up nectar.
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Additional Photos:

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Main Sources:

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