Malachite Sunbirds

The Malachite Sunbirds, Nectarinia famosa, is a small bird with two subspecies.

  • The nominate N. f. famosa occurs mainly in South Africa, Lesotho, and western Swaziland, although its range just extends into southern Namibia and Zimbabwe.
  • N. f. cupreonitens breeds in the highlands from Ethiopia south to northern Mozambique.

This large sunbird is found in hilly fynbos, protea, and aloehabitat and cool montane and coastal scrub, up to 2,800 m altitude in South Africa. It also occurs in parks and gardens. It is resident but may move downhill in winter. Frequently found nesting in suburban gardens of the Highveld.

This species is common in the highlands. It is territorial and aggressive when nesting, but highly gregarious when not breeding, forming flocks of more than 1000 birds.

Diet / Feeding

The sunbirds are a group of very small Old World passerine birds that feed largely on nectar, although they will also take insects, especially when feeding young. This sunbird will fly catch for insect prey

Most species can take nectar by hovering like a hummingbird but usually perch to feed most of the time. They have long thin down-curved bills and brush-tipped tubular tongues, both adaptations to nectar feeding.

Breeding / Nesting

The oval nest is usually suspended, as with most sunbirds, or built in a bush.

The female incubates one to three dark-blotched greenish eggs for two weeks. The chicks are fed by both parents until fledging; they will continue to return to the nest to roost. Malachite Sunbird is often double-brooded but may be parasitized by Klaas’s Cuckoo or Red-chested Cuckoo.


The breeding male Malachite Sunbirds, which has very long central tail feathers, is 25 cm long, and the shorter-tailed female is 15 cm. The adult male is metallic green when breeding, with blackish-green wings with small yellow pectoral patches.

In non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, the male’s upperparts are brown apart from the green wings and tail, the latter retaining the elongated feathers. The underparts in eclipse plumage are yellow, flecked with green.

The female has brown upperparts and dull yellow underparts with some indistinct streaking on the breast. Her tail is square-ended. The juvenile resembles the female.

Sunbird flight is fast and direct on short wings.

Malachite Sunbird, Nectarinia famosa - Female

Malachite Sunbird, Nectarinia famosa

Calls / Vocalizations

The call is a loud tseep-tseep, and the male Malachite Sunbird has a twittering song, often accompanied by pointing its head upward and displaying the yellow pectoral tufts (“armpits”) with its wings half open.

Males also have an elaborate display flight.

Malachite Sunbird, Nectarinia famosa
Malachite Sunbird

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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