Singing honeyeater (Lichenostomus virescens)

Also known as: black-faced honeyeater, Forrest’s honeyeater, large-striped honeyeater, singing honey-eater
Synonyms: Melithreptus virescens
GenusLichenostomus (1)
SizeLength: 16 - 24 cm (2)
Weight20 - 35 g (2)
Top facts

The singing honeyeater is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Known for its pleasant voice (3), the singing honeyeater (Lichenostomus virescens) is one of the first birds to call in the morning, with the male bird singing from its roost 20 to 30 minutes before dawn (2). While its common name is derived from its vocal capabilities, the singing honeyeater’s scientific name is presumably related to its plumage colour. The name of this species, virescens, means ‘greenish’ (4) and relates to the faint olive tint throughout the bird’s deep greyish-brown upperparts (2).

The singing honeyeater is faintly streaked with darker brown on the top of its head (2), and has a small, inconspicuous white ear-tuft, which is usually covered over by yellow ear-coverts (2) (3). This species sports a black mask which extends from the bill through the eye and to the neck. The striking mask is bordered below by a yellow stripe under the eye, which fades into the whitish or grey underparts (2) (3) (5), giving the throat a yellowish wash (2). Heavy, dense grey-brown streaks pepper the singing honeyeater’s pale breast, flanks and upper belly (2), while fainter, paler streaks mark the rest of the underparts (2) (3) (5).

Yellow-olive outer edges are present on some of the greyish-brown to brown uppertail and upperwing feathers, creating a conspicuous panel on the folded wing. The underwing is creamy with a brown trailing edge and tip and an orange-buff wash on the coverts (2). The singing honeyeater has a black bill and dark brown or black-brown eyes, while its legs are dark grey (2) (3).

Male and female singing honeyeaters are similar in appearance (2). Although the juveniles look much like the adults, they tend to have paler upperparts, particularly on the forehead and crown, as well as a narrower, duller face mask (2) (3). The pale buffish-brown underparts of the juvenile singing honeyeater also tend to be mottled rather than streaked (2). There are some differences in size and colouration between the various subspecies of singing honeyeater, with northern populations tending to be smaller than more southern populations (2) (6). Interestingly, the singing honeyeaters on Rottnest Island have been found to be 25 percent larger than those on the mainland (7).

This species performs a lively range of loud, high and clear musical phrases consisting of double or multiple notes (2) (3), with the most common call being a repeated, drawn-out ‘preet’, ‘queek’ or ‘sheek’. Loud, sharp rippling or trilling whistles signal alarm, while continuous chirping and intense chattering and bill snapping usually accompanies territory defence (2). The singing honeyeater’s song is known to vary geographically (2) (8), with individuals on islands using fewer syllables and having fewer song-types. However, island populations have also been found to use some unique syllables (8).

The singing honeyeater is an Australian species (2) (5) (7) (9) (10), and is very widespread across the mainland (5) (7). However, this species tends to be absent from the forested coastal areas (5) (10), as well as from the east and far north of the country (7) (10), including upper Queensland, and Tasmania (5).

There are four recognised subspecies of singing honeyeater, each with a different range, although these ranges are known to overlap in places (2).

Resident year-round throughout its range, the singing honeyeater is only thought to make local movements (2) (3). However, this species is known to be a vagrant in certain areas at the edges of or beyond its normal range, including on Kangaroo Island, South Australia (2).

The singing honeyeater is a habitat generalist (11), and is found in most open wooded areas across the Australian Outback (2) (5) (7) (10), particularly those dominated by acacia trees (2) (3) (5). It also occurs in open shrublands, on plains, or around swamps and other wetlands, as well as in parks, gardens, farmland and towns (2) (3) (5). The singing honeyeater is occasionally seen in mangroves (2) (10) and along small creeks (2).

A relatively versatile feeder (12), the singing honeyeater primarily feeds on nectar (5), but also eats fruit and a range of invertebrates (2) (3) (5) (12), including insects, spiders and molluscs (2). Interestingly, this species is known to rub bees against a hard surface before swallowing them, although the reasons for this are unclear. On occasion, the singing honeyeater has been recorded taking the eggs and nestlings of certain Taeniopygia finches (2).

This active and conspicuous species usually forages alone (2), but may sometimes feed in pairs or in loose flocks of four to six individuals (2) (3). Such flocks usually contain family members (2). Feeding at lower levels than most other honeyeater species (3), the singing honeyeater generally feeds in low shrubs or on the ground (2) (3), probing at flowers for nectar (2). Its invertebrate prey is usually gleaned from foliage, branches and tree trunks (2) (12), or caught by flying out from a perch to catch it in the air or on the ground (2).

The singing honeyeater may breed in all months of the year, although most breeding occurs between mid-August and late November (2), particularly in coastal areas (5). A monogamous species, the singing honeyeater sometimes forms long-term bonds with its partner (3).

The nest is an open cup created from woven grasses and leaves, occasionally with additional flowers and bark (2), and bound with wool or spider web (2) (3). It is usually lined with wool, roots, fur (2) (3) (5) and occasionally with plant down or fine grasses (2). Oddly, the singing honeyeater’s nest tends to be a flimsy structure in the eastern parts of its range, but quite substantial in the more western regions. The nest is usually suspended from a fork in a tree or from small twigs in a low, thorny shrub, at an average of two metres above the ground (2).

The female singing honeyeater lays a clutch of between one and three eggs (2) (3), although two is most common, and the eggs are thought to be incubated by the female alone (2) (3) (5). The eggs are a pallid, pinky-yellow colour marked with rusty spots (5), and are incubated for a period of between 12 and 14 days (2), with the chicks remaining in the nest for a further 13 days or so (3) (5). While the male singing honeyeater is not involved in the incubation of the eggs, it does assist with feeding and raising the young (2) (3) (5). Singing honeyeater nests are often parasitised by the pallid cuckoo (Cuculus pallidus) (2) (3).

As it is a very widespread species with an extremely large range (7) (9), the singing honeyeater is not considered to be globally threatened (2). Although some declines have been reported in certain parts of its range, the singing honeyeater is increasing in other areas (2).

There are no known targeted conservation measures currently in place for the singing honeyeater. However, it is thought to be benefitting from ongoing habitat degradation, which is creating new areas of suitable habitat and leading to a population increase in this species (3) (9).

Find out more about the singing honeyeater:

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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 (November, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2008) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13: Penduline-tits to Shrikes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Birds in Backyards - Singing honeyeater (November, 2012)
  4. Jobling, J.A. (2009) Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  5. Waybill, S. (2007) Our Australian Feathered Friends.
  6. Schodde, R. and Mason, I.J. (1999) Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  7. Thomas, R., Thomas, S., Andrew, D. and McBride, A. (2011) The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  8. Avital, E. and Jablonka, E. (2000) Animal Traditions: Behavioural Inheritance in Evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  9. BirdLife International - Singing honeyeater:
  10. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1991) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
  11. Wiens, J.A. (1995) Habitat fragmentation: island v landscape perspectives on bird conservation. Ibis, 137(1): 97-104.
  12. Wiens, J.A. (1992) The Ecology of Bird Communities. Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.