Birdie Work

Jul 1, 1997 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:21 AM


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Steve Johnson, a botanist at the University of Natal in South Africa, was puzzled and amused when he came across this double-collared sunbird, Nectarinia chalybea. The bird had a clump of pollen stuck to its bill, which Johnson soon identified as orchid pollen. Unlike the loose and powdery pollen found in most plants, orchid pollen is attached to a sticky pad in the flower that breaks away when a bird pokes its beak into the flower for a sip of nectar. Until Johnson’s observation, most botanists had assumed that South African orchids relied on insects for pollination. Sunbirds have been known to pollinate plants such as proteas, aloes, and ericas but not orchids. Later that day, Johnson found a dune filled with the orchid Satyrium carneum; fluttering among the flowers were a number of sunbirds, many carrying the trademark sticky pad on their beaks. Unfortunately, the pad seems to annoy the birds--Johnson has seen them scraping their beaks against tree stumps and branches to no avail.

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