Dear Bird Folks:
On my recent vacation to the Cayman Islands, I fell in love with this darling little bird called a “sugar bird.” The sugar birds would come to my villa each morning and steal scraps off my breakfast table. Now that I’m home, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my books. Could you please give me some information about sugar birds and are they ever found around here?
– Tina, Duxbury
Love, eh Tina.
Most people return from the Caribbean with a love story about some hottie that they met at Club Med. Rarely do we hear about anyone falling in love with a bird that makes its living picking up scraps off the breakfast table. Good for you. I’m sure things will work out for you two, once you get past the language barrier.
The delightful little bird that you discovered in the Caymans is a “bananaquit.” The “sugar bird” title is a local term and not often found in field guides. Local names, although usually more descriptive, can be confusing. Down south some people call cardinals “red birds.” In the Northeast we call catfish “horned pout” and in France they call poodles “dogs.” You just never know.
Bananaquits are found throughout most of the Caribbean, Central America and northern parts of South America. And occasionally you will find a few in Florida. They have bright yellow on their sides, a bold white stripe above the eye and a long down-curved beak. Less than 5 inches long, bananaquits are smaller than our chickadees, but are just as friendly and entertaining.
As you may have guessed, the reason why they are called sugar birds is because they love to eat sugar. I think my first experience with bananaquits was also in the Cayman Islands. I remember flipping through the pages of my field guide, trying to identify this beautiful little bird, as it hopped onto the sugar bowl. It then helped itself to a beak-full of the sugar that I was about to stir into my iced tea. Even though the bird looked clean and everything, I still decided to drink my iced tea unsweetened that day.
In addition to robbing sugar bowls, bananaquits also eat small insects, fruit (yes, including bananas) and nectar from flowers. Since they aren’t able to hover like hummingbirds, bananaquits have adapted tremendous acrobatic skills. They cling and climb all over various plants to gain access to the nectar. The birds’ adventurous feeding style also benefits the plants. While reaching deep for the nectar, the birds help to pollinate the plants’ flowers. (At least birds know about sustainable living.)
Bananaquits build messy dome-shaped nests that have an entry hole on the bottom. Once the nest is built, the birds hate to give it up. Most other songbirds use their nests for raising young only. When the babies leave, so do the adults, preferring to move on and block the whole kid thing out of their minds until next year. When the young banaquits are ready to head out, the parent birds give them some advice, a little cash and send them on their way. The fledglings fly off, while the adult sugar birds remain to use the old nest as a nightly roosting site or a diabetes clinic.
For years most researchers considered the bananaquits to be some kind of honeycreeper, but now they are thinking these unique birds are in a family all by themselves. No other bird looks or acts quite like them. What is even more interesting is that years of island isolation has led to many separate subspecies. The bananaquit that you had a crush on in the Cayman Islands won’t look exactly like the ones that you’ll see on your trip next year to the Bahamas. So don’t be upset.
Bananaquits are spirited and interesting birds, Tina. You picked a good bird to fall in love with. Just don’t plan on marrying one for a while. There is enough going on in the Massachusetts State House right now.l