Regent honeyeater (Xanthomyza phrygia)

Also known as: embroidered bee-eater, embroidered honeyeater, embroidered merops, flying coachman, mock regent-bird, mock-regent honeyeater, turkeybird, warty-faced honeyeater
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMeliphagidae
GenusXanthomyza (1)
SizeHead-body length: 20.4 - 24 cm (2)
Average wingspan: 30 cm (3)
Male weight: 41 - 45.5 g (2)
Female weight: 33 - 45 g (2)

The regent honeyeater is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A flagship species for the conservation of Australia’s threatened woodlands, the boldly-patterned regent honeyeater is an instantly recognisable species (4). The plumage is a striking yellow and white, and contrasts with the conspicuous black hood and neck, which fades to pale yellow on the chest, and cream on the belly. The black wings have three distinctive bold yellow panels, while the tail is black with yellow flanks and tips. The slender body of the regent honeyeater has pointed wings, strong legs, and sharp claws, while the large black bill is heavy and sharp, with a slight downward curve at the tip (5). In common with most honeyeaters, the smaller female is similar in appearance to the male, but the juvenile has a dusky brown plumage, a patch of blue-grey facial skin, and a cream belly (2).   

Endemic to south-east Australia, the regent honeyeater is largely found in north-east Victoria, the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range, and the central coast of New South Wales. Small numbers of birds are also found in the Australian Capital Territory, and in extreme south-east Queensland. The regent honeyeater was once found in south and western Victoria, but today it only occurs as a vagrant, while the species is believed to have been extirpated from South Australia (4) (6). The regent honeyeater has a widespread range, estimated at around 273,000 square kilometres, but during the breeding season birds concentrate at three main locations: Capertee Valley, Bundarra-Barraba and Chiltern (4) (6).  

The regent honeyeater is most commonly found in forest associations that support nectar producing species, such as dry sclerophyll box-ironbar eucalypt woodlands, a unique habitat in Australia (6). It prefers wetter, more fertile areas along creeks, river valleys, and on the slopes of lower foothills, such as riparian forest of she-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), and wet lowland coastal forests dominated by swamp mahogany (E. robusta) or spotted gum (Corymbia maculata), and areas dominated by reliable nectar producing trees, such as mugga ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon) and white box (E. albens) (2) (4) (6). It also has a preference for woodlands with large numbers of mature trees, high canopy cover and a high abundance of mistletoes (3). The regent honeyeater will also visit partially cleared agricultural land, or gardens and reserves with remnant patches of eucalypt trees (2).   

A largely arboreal bird, the regent honeyeater generally forages amongst the crown of the largest trees, using its strong legs and sharp claws to clamber agilely around the flowers and foliage, often feeding upside-down (5). Using an elongated, protrusible tongue with a brush-like tip, it extracts nectar from the flowers of a variety of eucalypt species, although it also eats insects and their exudates, including the sugar-rich honeydew. When nectar is abundant, the regent honeyeater may feed almost exclusively from flowers, but when nectar is in short supply, or whilst feeding hatchlings, it may feed primarily on insects, or may consume fruits and buds (6). Whilst feeding, flocks of up to 30 birds may congregate around flowering trees, occasionally with closely related species, which cooperate to defend the feeding territory (2).

The regent honeyeater is thought to live to around 10 years in the wild, but reaches sexual maturity within its first year. The timing of breeding corresponds to flowering in key eucalypt and mistletoe species, but peaks between September and November (6). Breeding pairs are monogamous and aggressively defend their breeding grounds from related species, often returning to the same area each season (5) (6). A cup shaped nest of dry bark and grass, bound by spider webs, is usually constructed in the crown of a tall eucalypt tree, and two to three pinkish-red eggs are incubated by the female for some 12 to 15 days. The young birds will fledge from the nest 13 to 17 days after hatching, and will continue to be fed by the parents for a further three to four weeks (6). 

In response to the timing of flowering in a number of eucalypt species, the nomadic regent honeyeater undergoes a series of complex movements, and is capable of travelling very large distances. Typically, birds move northwards in autumn, and concentrate into breeding areas. This is followed by a southward migration in early spring, as birds move towards sites with reliable peaks in nectar production (6).

The main threat to the regent honeyeater is the loss, degradation and fragmentation of Australia’s native woodlands. Around 75 percent of the regent honeyeater’s habitat is thought to have been cleared for agricultural or residential purposes, including substantial areas of yellow box (E. melliodora) and white box woodlands, which are particularly important to the regent honeyeater (6). The natural regeneration of these woodlands is also limited through livestock overgrazing, the removal of mature seed dispersing trees, and unnatural fire regimes (3). Many remnant woodlands are now heavily degraded and highly fragmented, limiting the regent honeyeater’s ability to move across the landscape. Woodland fragmentation also allows populations of more aggressive honeyeaters, such as the noisy miner (Manorina melanocephela), to expand, which often out-compete the regent honeyeater for foraging and nesting opportunities (6). In the face of such severe pressure, the regent honeyeater population is declining, and is now estimated at an alarmingly low 1,500 mature individuals (4).

The regent honeyeater is described as a flagship species for the conservation of Australia’s native woodlands, as efforts to save this species should help conserve many other threatened species found within its habitat. As a result, the regent honeyeater has received a large degree of interest, and conservation objectives are outlined in a detailed recovery plan (7). Consequently, timber extraction, grazing and mining have all been prohibited or minimised in a number of sites that are regularly used by the species, while guidelines have also been employed to ensure proper land and forestry management, and to protect suitable breeding and foraging sites (6).   

To increase public awareness of the plight of the regent honeyeater, Birds Australia has undertaken an education programme in important reserves and on freehold land (8). This has resulted in the establishment of a volunteer-based programme that aims to restore and expand degraded regent honeyeater habitat through revegetation on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range (9). These efforts have also been complemented by a successful breeding programme from captive birds housed at Taronga and other zoos. In 2000, nine captive-bred birds were released, in 2008 a total of 27 were, and a further 44 birds were released in 2010 (6) (9) (10). 

The regent honeyeater is also afforded sanctuary in a large number of protected reserves throughout its range. Efforts are underway to increase the connectivity between reserves through the creation of corridors of key woodland species by planting 54,000 trees and 30 kilometres of fencing. The species’ nesting areas at Chiltern Box-Ironbark National Park have also received additional protection, and are managed as Special Protected Areas. This requires disturbances to be limited, and prevents mineral extractions in these areas (6).

For more information on the conservation of birds in Australia, see: 

For more information on the conservation of the regent honeyeater, see:

Authenticated (24/06/2010) by Dean Ingwersen, Woodland Birds for Biodiversity Project Officer, Birds Australia, Carlton, Australia.
http://www.birdsaustralia.com.au/

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13: Penduline-tits to Shrikes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Threatened Species:  Species, populations and ecological communities of New South Wales (January, 2010)
    http://www.threatenedspecies.environment.nsw.gov.au/
  4. BirdLife International (January, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=5374&m=0
  5. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. The Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts Species Profile and Threats Database (January, 2010)
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=430
  7. Menkhorst. P., Schedvin, N. and Geering. D. (1999) Regent Honeyeater Recovery Plan 1999 -2003. Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Melbourne. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/recovery/regent-h-eater/index.html
  8. Birds Australia (January, 2010)
    http://www.birdsaustralia.com.au/
  9. Hirschfeld, E. (2008) Rare Birds Yearbook 2009. MadDig Media Limited, UK.
  10. Ingwersen, D. (2010) Pers. comm.