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Aspects of nocturnal physiology and behaviour in malachite sunbirds (Nectarina famosa).

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Although sleep forms an important part of an animal’s life, there is a paucity of knowledge about sleep behaviour. The function of sleep in birds is poorly understood, even though birds spend a large part of their lives sleeping. Sleep behaviour in passerine birds has not been looked at as extensively as that of non-passerine birds. I looked at the sleep behaviour of three relatively common passerine birds occurring in southern Africa, namely the Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa), the Cape White-eye (Zosterops pallidus) and the Fan-tailed Widowbird (Euplectes axillaris). By using an infra-red sensitive camera I described basic sleep behaviours at various ambient temperatures, of all three species, such as sleep position and eye closure, and also investigated the incidence of unihemispheric sleep. Individuals of all three species spent most of the night asleep and kept on waking up intermittently throughout the night, with no significant differences between temperatures. Cape White-eyes and Malachite Sunbirds showed an increase in back sleep and a decrease in front sleep at 5oC. Little evidence of unihemispheric sleep was found, suggesting that it is more likely to occur in non-passerines, especially ground dwelling birds. Diurnal birds generally sleep during the hours of darkness. Most male southern African sunbirds have pectoral tufts, although the function of these is not always understood. In male Malachite Sunbirds it has recently been found that they display their pectoral tufts almost continuously throughout the night, whilst asleep. I explored the possible function of this behaviour and suggest that these tufts might be a deterrent to predators, as they look like ‘eyes’ in the dark. A review of the use and occurrence of pectoral tufts in southern African sunbird species is also presented. Blood glucose concentrations of most birds are much higher than those found in mammals and it is still not known how they evade the complications of such high levels. I investigated the change in blood glucose concentrations of Malachite Sunbirds at two different ambient temperatures and at different times of the night and day and explored the possibility that gluconeogenesis might be used by birds to ‘warm up’ during arousal of torpor in the early morning, before daylight. Generally blood glucose levels were fairly high, between 13.6 and 21.4 mmol/L, which was expected. Blood glucose levels were higher at 5oC than at 25oC and generally lower in the early hours of the morning. Therefore I reject the assumption that Malachite Sunbirds use gluconeogenesis as an additional form of heat generation during torpor. It is thought that the difference in the levels of blood glucose might be a function of the cold temperature and the consumption of their nectarivorous diet. This research clearly highlights the need for further studies to be undertaken in the sleeping behaviours and patterns of birds, especially in southern African species. It also shows that more studies need to be done on the use of pectoral tufts in sunbird species and furthermore it is suggested that more research is needed to elucidate the mechanism by which Malachite Sunbirds are able to rapidly ‘warm up’ during arousal, when in torpor.


Thesis (M.Sc.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2007.


Sunbirds--Physiology--Africa, Southern., Sunbirds--Behaviour--Africa, Southern., Sleep behaviour in animals., Passeriformes--Behavior--Africa, Southern., Theses--Zoology.