Giant sunbird (Nectarinia thomensis)

Synonyms: Dreptes thomensis
French: Grand Souimanga de São Tomé
GenusNectarinia (1)
SizeLength: 15 – 17 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

This large sunbird is noted for its remarkable bill which, like other sunbirds, is long and curved and well adapted for probing flowers and bark for food (3). The giant sunbird has matt black plumage, embellished with a deep blue and purple iridescence, and a long, graduated tail with whitish tips (2) (3). There are no significant differences in the appearance of male and female giant sunbirds, which sing a deep and melodious ‘swee woo wee woo wee’ (3).

Endemic to São Tomé, an island situated in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Africa (3).

The giant sunbird inhabits primary forest, where it is found from the understorey to the canopy (3). Lowland primary forest holds the majority of giant sunbird populations, but giant sunbirds may also be found in montane forest (4), at elevations up to at least 2,000 metres (2).

The giant sunbird has a more varied diet than most other sunbirds, feeding not only on nectar, but also on invertebrates. It feeds by hovering in front of flowers (4), like a hummingbird but with slower wingbeats (5), and also pierces the base of flowers to obtain the rich, sugary nectar. While creeping along branches, the giant sunbird probes bark, moss and lichen with its long bill, searching for invertebrate prey (2) (4).

Sunbirds, known for being aggressive and territorial, usually construct nests of fine moss and cobwebs, suspended from twigs and branches (5). Nests of the giant sunbird have been found in late December and early January (2).

Historically, large expanses of lowland and mid-altitude forest in São Tomé were cleared for cocoa and coffee plantations (2). Since a crash in cocoa prices, many former plantations have now reverted into secondary forest, but less than 30 percent of the island remains covered in primary forest (4). Further loss or alteration of the island’s primary forest is the single most significant threat facing the giant sunbird. Timber extraction, primarily for fuel and building materials, threatens the undisturbed forest of lowland areas, while montane primary forest is at immediate risk from encroaching agriculture. A particular concern is plans by the government to sell off forested areas to private companies (4).

There are currently no known specific conservation measures in place for the giant sunbird. The protection of areas of primary forest on São Tomé has been proposed, but as yet the forest remains worryingly unprotected. BirdLife International, the conservation organisation which assessed the conservation status of the giant sunbird, recommends that further research into the population size, distribution and ecological requirements of this Vulnerable species is required in order to propose conservation actions (2).

For further information on the giant sunbird see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2008)
  2. BirdLife International (March, 2008)
  3. Sinclair, I. and Ryan, P. (2003) Birds of Africa: South of the Sahara. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  4. Peet, N.B. and Atkinson, P.W. (1994) The biodiversity and conservation of the birds of São Tomé and Príncipe. Biodiversity and Conservation, 3: 851 - 867.
  5. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.