Brown honeyeater (Lichmera indistincta)

Brown honeyeater
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • The brown honeyeater has a specialised, brush-tipped tongue that is adapted for feeding on nectar.
  • Although it feeds mainly on nectar, the brown honeyeater also eats insects and spiders.
  • The brown honeyeater is one of the most widely distributed honeyeater species.
  • The brown honeyeater is often partly nomadic, moving around in response to the flowering of its food plants.
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Brown honeyeater fact file

Brown honeyeater description

GenusLichmera (1)

The brown honeyeater (Lichmera indistincta) is a relatively small honeyeater (3) with a slender body, narrow head and long, downward-curving bill that bears slit-like nostrils (4). Like other species in the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae), the brown honeyeater has a specialised tongue for feeding on nectar and pollen (4).

The plumage of the brown honeyeater is largely brownish-grey, with slightly paler grey underparts and an olive wash on the back. There is a dark stripe between the bill and eye, a narrow dark ring around the eye, and a distinctive yellow tuft behind it. The brown honeyeater also has yellow-olive patches on its wings and tail (2) (3). The eyes of this species are dark brown, its bill is black and its legs are greyish-black (2).

The female brown honeyeater is similar in appearance to the male, but is smaller and has less contrast between the colour of the crown and the back (2) (4). Juveniles resemble the adult female, but have slightly paler, browner upperparts, a reduced or absent yellow tuft behind the eye, and a yellowish wash on the lower belly (2) (3).

Four subspecies of brown honeyeater are usually recognised: Lichmera indistincta indistincta, Lichmera indistincta nupta, Lichmera indistincta melvillensis and Lichmera indistincta ocularis. However, these subspecies differ only subtly in their appearance (2).

The brown honeyeater is quite a noisy bird and uses a range of calls, including a harsh ‘ke-ke’, a loud ‘plik(2) and a clear, musical ‘whit, whit, whitchit(3). It may also make snapping noises with its bill during aggressive encounters. The song of the brown honeyeater is a loud, liquid, rolling phrase, described as ‘sweet-sweet-quarty-quarty(2).

Also known as
Australian brown honeyeater, least honeyeater, warbling honeyeater.
Meliphaga indistincta.
Male length: 12 - 16 cm (2)
Female length: 11.5 - 15 cm (2)
7 - 17 g (2)

Brown honeyeater biology

Like other honeyeaters, the brown honeyeater is specially adapted for feeding on nectar. Its protrusible, brush-tipped tongue is able to soak up nectar like a mop, before being withdrawn and squeezed out against the roof of the mouth so that the nectar runs back down the tongue into the throat (4). In addition to feeding on nectar, the brown honeyeater supplements its diet with some small insects and spiders (2) (3).

Foraging takes place at all levels of the forest (2) (3), and the brown honeyeater may sometimes hang below a branch to probe for nectar from pendulous flowers. Insects are usually taken from the vegetation or from bark, but may also be caught in the air (2). The brown honeyeater is usually active and noisy (2) (4) and may be seen either alone, in pairs, or in small flocks in flowering trees, sometimes in mixed flocks with other bird species (2) (3).

The brown honeyeater generally breeds between April and November in the north of its range, and between June and February in the south. During the breeding season, the male brown honeyeater defends a nesting territory by singing from a tall tree, and stands guard while the female builds the nest and lays the eggs (3). The male may also sometimes help in nest construction (2).

The nest of the brown honeyeater is usually located in a tree or shrub, typically well concealed in dense foliage, but may also sometimes be built in a fallen tree or among rushes or ferns. This species’ nest is an open cup of fine bark, grass, plant down and sometimes paper, bound together with spider webs and lined with plant down, hair, fine grass or flowers (2) (3) (5). Spider egg sacs and cocoons may sometimes be attached to the outside (2) (5). The whole structure is characteristically suspended from twigs by its rim (3) (4) (5).

The brown honeyeater lays a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs, which are incubated by the female for around 13 to 14 days (2) (5). The young honeyeaters are fed by both adults (2) (5) and leave the nest at 13 to 17 days old (2). The nests of the brown honeyeater are sometimes parasitised by cuckoos such as the brush cuckoo (Cacomantis variolosus), pallid cuckoo (Cuculus pallidus) and Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo (Chrysococcyx basalis) (2) (3).


Brown honeyeater range

One of the most widely distributed honeyeater species (5), the brown honeyeater occurs across much of eastern, western and northern Australia, as well as in New Guinea, parts of Indonesia and the Aru Islands (2) (3) (6).

The brown honeyeater is resident year-round in many areas, but it is often nomadic or partly nomadic, moving around in response to the flowering of its food plants. It may also make some seasonal movements in parts of its range (2) (3).


Brown honeyeater habitat

The brown honeyeater can be found in a wide range of wooded habitats, often near water. For example, it has been recorded in various types of woodland and shrubland, as well as mangrove forest, rainforest, monsoon forest, and woodlands along tidal flats, estuaries and shorelines. This species also occurs in tropical heathland, salt marsh and coastal scrub, and is common in parks and gardens in urban areas, as well as in farmland and remnant vegetation along roadsides (2) (3).


Brown honeyeater status

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

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Brown honeyeater threats

The brown honeyeater is common and widespread, and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (2) (6). However, declines in this species have been recorded, possibly due to ongoing habitat loss (6). For example, the brown honeyeater has declined in the Wheatbelt region of south-western Australia after large-scale habitat clearance (2) (3), although it does occur in farmland and urban habitats elsewhere (3).


Brown honeyeater conservation

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for the brown honeyeater.


Find out more

Find out more about the brown honeyeater and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:



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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.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
A species which roams irregularly from place to place in search of food and water, without returning to a fixed location.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.


  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2008) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13: Penduline-Tits to Shrikes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Birds in Backyards - Brown honeyeater (September, 2012)
  4. Schodde, R. and Mason, I.J. (1999) The Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  5. Franklin, D.C. and Noske, R.A. (2000) The nesting biology of the brown honeyeater Lichmera indistincta in the Darwin region of northern Australia, with notes on tidal flooding of nests. Corella, 24(3): 38-44.
  6. BirdLife International (September, 2012)

Image credit

Brown honeyeater  
Brown honeyeater

© Don Hadden /

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