Spiny-cheeked honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis)

Spiny-cheeked honeyeaters
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is named for the white, spiny bristles on its cheeks.
  • The bill of the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is pink, but has a black tip.
  • The spiny-cheeked honeyeater has an off-white patch on its rump which is very conspicuous when the bird is in flight.
  • The spiny-cheeked honeyeater’s diet consists mainly of fruit, nectar and insects.
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Spiny-cheeked honeyeater fact file

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater description

GenusAcanthagenys (1)

Named for the long, white, spiny bristles on its cheeks (2) (3) (4), the spiny-cheeked honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis) is an Australian bird with a distinctive facial pattern (2). It has a black-tipped pink bill (2) (3), which appears to be almost continuous with a vivid strip of pink, bare skin that extends beneath the eye to behind the ear. This bright patch of skin is bordered above by a blackish eyestripe, and below by the spiny white cheek stripe, which broadens down the side of the neck (2).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is mostly olive-grey on its upperparts, with a blackish, finely mottled crown and hind neck. Its back is streaked blackish, with an off-white patch on the rump (2), which is particularly noticeable in flight. The spiny-cheeked honeyeater’s breast is apricot-coloured (3) or reddish-brown (4), while the rest of the underparts are cream with bold, dark brown streaks on the lower breast which gradually get finer below. A narrow white stripe is conspicuous on the tip of the spiny-cheeked honeyeater’s blackish tail (2).

The eyes of the spiny-cheeked honeyeater are light blue to blue-grey, and its legs are black-brown to black (2). The male and female spiny-cheeked honeyeater are similar in appearance (2) (4), but the male is generally larger than the female. The juvenile spiny-cheeked honeyeater is similar to the adult, although the top of the head tends to be browner, and the conspicuous cheek stripe is more yellow and less bristly in texture. The dark streaking on the slightly duller underparts is much finer than in the adult, and the eyes are brown (2).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is a rather noisy bird (2) (3) (4), and is often first noticed by its guttural call, usually given from a shady perch (5). This species is also described as having a variety of mellow whistles (3), as well as a somewhat plaintive trill (2) (4). A clear ‘tok-tok’ or ‘quock’ call is used as a sign of alarm, and this species chatters loudly when carrying out a display flight. The spiny-cheeked honeyeater can be heard calling throughout the day, although more so in the morning (2).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater has a pleasant song, which is given in flight or while perched and is performed by both sexes. It is composed of varied whistling phrases, and lasts for about five or six seconds. Spiny-cheeked honeyeater pairs perform duets, and this species is also known to mimic a range of other bird species, including the grey shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica) (2).

Also known as
spiny-cheeked wattlebird, spring-cheeked honeyeater.

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater biology

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is a resident bird over much of its range, although it is thought to be partly migratory in some areas. Seasonal movements of this species have been linked to the timing of flowering (2). Although it is a resident species, the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is a highly nomadic one, moving fair distances in search of food and water, much like many other Australian desert-dwelling birds (3).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is most active and conspicuous when foraging, but it can be somewhat secretive and shy when at rest (5). Throughout most of the year, this species usually occurs singly or in pairs (2) (5), but it is known to occasionally form large feeding flocks in the autumn and winter (5).

The diet of the spiny-cheeked honeyeater consists mainly of fruit, nectar and arthropods, particularly insects and some spiders, although seeds are also taken (2). Mistletoe appears to be a favourite food item of this bird species, with the seeds passing through the gut and germinating on the branch where they are deposited (2) (8). In South Australia, the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is one of the main dispersers of Amyema quandang seeds, and it also pollinates the plant when it feeds from the flower’s nectar (9). The spiny-cheeked honeyeater also occasionally eats small vertebrates, including lizards and nestlings (2), and as its name suggests, it also feeds on honey (4).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater generally forages in shrubs and trees, but may also forage on the ground or in the air (2), sallying after flying insects at dawn or dusk. This species actively clambers around within vegetation in search of food (5), probing flowers for nectar, and gleaning arthropod prey from leaves and branches (2).

Breeding in the spiny-cheeked honeyeater has been recorded in all months, although egg laying seems to occur at different times depending on the location. In the eastern parts of its range, including Queensland and Victoria, the spiny-cheeked honeyeater lays its eggs between August and March, whereas in Western Australia and the Northern Territory the eggs are laid from mid-July to December (2).

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater builds a neat cup-shaped nest, which although rather delicate-looking is actually quite strong. Suspended among branches, usually a few metres above the ground, the nest is built of leaves, twigs, grass and even spider egg-sacs, and is bound with spider web or wool, before being lined with wool, fur and plant down. A typical spiny-cheeked honeyeater clutch consists of 2 to 3 eggs, which are incubated for a period of 14 to 15 days. The role of the sexes in incubation and brooding is unclear, but both sexes are known to feed the young. The young spiny-cheeked honeyeaters fledge after about 14 to 19 days, and are fed by the adults for at least a further 12 days. Spiny-cheeked honeyeater nests are known to be parasitised by the pallid cuckoo (Cuculus pallidus) (2).


Spiny-cheeked honeyeater range

A common bird of Australia’s arid interior (3) (6), the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is generally found south of about 19 to 20 degrees South, with only scattered records from the far southwest, southern Victoria and east of the Great Divide. The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is also found on Barrow Island, 50 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia (2).


Spiny-cheeked honeyeater habitat

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is found in arid and semi-arid woodland and scrub (2) (3) (6), particularly in areas dominated by Acacia species with other shrubs in the understorey and a grassy ground layer (2). It also commonly occurs in mallee eucalypt woodland (2) (7), and can sometimes be found in areas of human habitation (7), such as parks, gardens, vineyards or agricultural land (2).

In certain regions, the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is reported to prefer isolated trees or clumps of trees, located within low, open woodland (5).


Spiny-cheeked honeyeater status

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

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Spiny-cheeked honeyeater threats

The spiny-cheeked honeyeater is not globally threatened, but it is known to be adversely affected by the clearing of its habitat (2). As a result of ongoing habitat destruction, this species is suspected to be in decline (10).


Spiny-cheeked honeyeater conservation

As the spiny-cheeked honeyeater is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction, there are no specific conservation measures in place for this species at present.


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A major grouping of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Brood parasite
An animal that lays its eggs in the nests of members of its own or other species; the host then raises the young as its own.
The catching of prey by plucking it from or within foliage.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
To transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Animals with a backbone, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.


  1. IUCN Red List (September, 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. BirdLife International (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London.
  4. Leach, J.A. (2005) An Australian Bird Book: A Complete Guide to the Identification of Australian Birds. Kessinger Publishing, Montana, USA.
  5. Tzaros, C. and Shimba, T. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  6. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1991) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
  7. Schodde, R. and Mason, I.J. (1999) Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  8. Lindenmayer, D. and Claridge, A. (2003) Wildlife on Farms: How to Conserve Native Animals. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  9. Mann, C.F. and Cheke, R.A. (2010) Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World. A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London.
  10. BirdLife International (September, 2012)

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Spiny-cheeked honeyeaters  
Spiny-cheeked honeyeaters

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