Mistletoebird: Australia’s native flowerpecker
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
LOOK AT THOSE three heavenly little faces, poking out of their pear-shaped nest made from crushed spider webs, egg sacs, plant down and wattle-blossom. It’s so nice to see baby birds be something other than the ravenous jaw-monsters we’re so used to seeing. Good job, mistletoe babies, A+ behaviour.
Flowerpecker birds (Dicaeidae) from the tropical regions of southern Asia are pretty little songbirds that do a fantastic job at combining the drab greys, greens, olives, whites and tans of their plumage with spectacular washes of colour.
There’s the orange-bellied flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma), with silvery feathers across its back and golden feathers covering its breast, belly, and the base of its tail. There’s Legge’s flowerpicker (Dicaeum vincens), with soft blue and white plumage offset by a bright, buttercup yellow breast, and then the Cebu flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor), with a plain white underside, black head, blue wings, and a large, triangular ‘coat stain’ of red across its back.
A male Mistletoebird near Lake Ginninderra, Canberra (Credit: Duncan McCaskill/Wikimedia
Australia’s only flowerpecker bird
And then there’s the mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum).
You might be wondering why we don’t just call the species the fire-breasted firepecker, which is objectively a far better name than the mistletoebird, but its relationship with mistletoe is what makes this bird so special. It feeds off the berries of the mistletoe plant, and in return for this constant food source, the birds have evolved to be the perfect carrier and distributor of the seeds within.
Unlike many other birds, the mistletoebird has no gizzard – a specialised pouch behind its stomach – to grind its food, which means the fruit of the berries can be digested without the seeds inside being destroyed.
According to Orpheus Island Research Station, run by scientists from James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland, to further protect the consumed mistletoe seeds, the mistletoebird also has a modified sphincter muscle located at the base of its stomach, which can be closed to prevent the seeds from mixing with harsh digestive enzymes. This means they can basically travel all the way through the gut and be pooped out on the other side and still be fit for germination.
“The seeds are sticky when excreted, and often several seeds are linked in a long glutinous thread, which adheres to the branch due the bird’s habit of restless switching about,” say the JCU researchers. Which is super-gross, but kind of genius, because the seeds can stay put in the safety of mistletoe branches while they wait to be germinated, and the practice ensures a never-ending supply of mistletoe berries for the mistletoebird!
The species is found all over Australia, except in the driest parts of Tasmania. It’s also native to the eastern Malauku Islands of Indonesia, which make up a small and scattered archipelago that sits between Australia and New Guinea in the Arafura Sea.