Brown honeyeater Lichmera indistincta, copyright Geoff Whalan.

Belongs within: Meliphagidae.

The brown honeyeaters
Published 3 November 2016

Honeyeaters are one of the first groups of birds likely to be noticed by newcomers to Australia (after the crows and magpies, of course). Though generally not large birds, they are active, noisy and often colourful. Individuals or small groups of them will almost invariably be seen around trees in flower, seeking out nectar and squabbling over access to the best blooms.

Brown honeyeater Lichmera indistincta, copyright JJ Harrison.

Here in Perth, one of the more common honeyeater species is the brown honeyeater Lichmera indistincta. This is one of the smaller honeyeaters and as such might be less commonly noted by the casual observer, but it is abundant nonetheless. The brown honeyeater is one of a genus of about ten species of small, slight honeyeaters with slender decurved bills found from the Lesser Sundas of Indonesia to New Caledonia and Vanuatu (Higgins et al. 2008). Lichmera indistincta is the only species found in continental Australia. Most of the species are locally more or less abundant though some have quite restricted ranges, being found only on specific islands. A few are considered near-threatened. Lichmera species are predominantly grey-brown or greenish in colour; perhaps the most strikingly coloured is the black-necklaced honeyeater L. notabilis of the island of Wetar in the Lesser Sundas, which is yellowish-olive above and yellow below, with a striking white throat patch outlined in black.

Indonesian honeyeater Lichmera limbata, copyright Lip Kee.

Lichmera honeyeaters occupy a wide range of habitats but often prefer to be in the vicinity of water, occupying river-side woodlands and stretches of mangroves. One subspecies of the silver-eared honeyeater L. alboauricularis olivacea has a distribution that closely follows river systems in northern New Guinea. Favoured food plants of the brown honeyeater in Australia include Myrtaceae such as Eucalyptus and Melaleuca, and Proteaceae such as Banksia and Grevillea. They will also take small insects and spiders; I suspect that the proportion of nectar to insects in the diet depends on the availability of the former. Nests are open cups constructed of plant matter such as grass and pieces of bark bound together with spider web and other fibres. Small clutches of one to three eggs are brooded by the female alone, taking about two weeks to hatch, though the chicks are fed by both parents. The call of the brown honeyeater, which can be heard year-round, has been rendered as ‘sweet-sweet-quarty-quarty’.

Nectar, of course, is not a hugely nutritious food source per volume (being mostly water), and a small bird like a brown honeyeater has to feed fairly constantly to keep itself going. Even though its metabolism slows down when sleeping, a brown honeyeater will still lose about half a gram of body weight overnight (Collins 1981) which is pretty impressive when you consider that the entire bire only weighs about eight grams (imagine if the average lost five kilos every night…) To make up for this loss, the bird feeds most heavily in the early morning, as well as retaining water for the last half-hour or so before going to sleep. And so it is that the honeyeater gets through the night.

Systematics of Lichmera
    |  i. s.: L. argentaurisJT12
    |         L. deningeriJT12
    |         L. flavicansJT12
    |         L. limbataJT12
    |         L. lombokiaJT12
    |         L. monticolaJT12
    |         L. notabilisJT12
    |         L. squamataJT12
    |--L. alboauricularisANM14
    `--+--L. incanaANM14
       `--L. indistinctaANM14
            |--L. i. indistinctaM03
            |--L. i. melvillensisM03
            `--L. i. ocularisM03

*Type species of generic name indicated


[ANM14] Andersen, M. J., A. Naikatani & R. G. Moyle. 2014. A molecular phylogeny of Pacific honeyeaters (Aves: Meliphagidae) reveals extensive paraphyly and an isolated Polynesian radiation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 71: 308–315.

Collins, B. G. 1981. Nectar intake and water balance for two species of Australian honeyeater, Lichmera indistincta and Acanthorhynchus superciliosis. Physiological Zoology 54 (1): 1–13.

Higgins, P. J., L. Christidis & H. A. Ford. 2008. Family Meliphagidae (honeyeaters). In: Hoyo, J. del, A. Elliott & D. Christie (eds) Handbook of Birds of the World vol. 13. Penduline-tits to shrikes pp. 498–691. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona.

[JT12] Jetz, W., G. H. Thomas, J. B. Joy, K. Hartmann & A. Ø. Mooers. 2012. The global diversity of birds in space and time. Nature 491: 444–448.

[M03] Morcombe, M. 2003. Field Guide to Australian Birds 2nd ed. Steve Parish Publishing.

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