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Difference between hummingbird and sunbird

Difference between hummingbird and sunbird

You know hummingbirds and experienced the joy of seeing them. But what is this new bird called sunbird, it seems similar and you thought it was a hummingbird when you first saw it!!! Or vice versa. In this article, you will get introduced to two great small birds, the hummingbird and sunbird. You will also know what are the differences between them, why they look similar and how to distinguish them.

What is a hummingbird?

Hummingbirds are tiny, beautiful, hovering birds that feed on flower nectar. They can be found in all parts of North and South America (with the majority occurring within), but they’re typically more prevalent in tropical regions. The average hummingbird measures 7-10 cm long; although some have been recorded at over 13cm. Hummingbirds are often known as humming birds because of the humming sound their wings make when they flap at high frequencies. Hummingbirds are beautiful creatures with unique bills. Their long and thin tube-like bill is used for licking nectar from flowers, sap wells or even feeders!

What is a sunbird?

This family of small birds is typically from the Old World and has a bill that curves downward. They’re brightly colored, with males having iridescent feathers, especially long tail feathers in some species! They are scattered across Africa to the Middle East, South Asia, South-east Asia and southern China, to Indonesia, New Guinea and northern Australia. The variety is highest in equatorial regions. Sunbird is one of the 95 species of  Nectariniidae (order Passeriformes), also called songbirds or Passerines. They are about 9-15 cm long and like hummingbirds, mainly live on nectar.

Why do hummingbirds and sunbirds look similar?

There is a concept called convergent evolution. Similar characteristics start appearing due to last common ancestors or due to common lifestyles. Hummingbirds, Sunbirds as well as Honeyeaters of Australia have acquired common characteristics over time due to their similar nectar-feeding lifestyle. Both are small birds, and when some sunbirds hover in a similar way to hummingbirds when feeding on nectar, they can get confusing at times. Both are small, active, colorful and feed on nectar. This is where these birds often look similar to the viewers.

The major difference between hummingbird and sunbird is the way of feeding on nectar or food sources. A hummingbird hovers on its food source whereas a sunbird needs a perch to feed on nectar. Other differences are their location, beak shape, sound of wing flapping and nest shapes.

Below is a summary of differences between hummingbird and sunbird in a table. The columns refer to the type of difference, characteristic of hummingbird and characteristic of sunbird.

Type of DifferenceHummingbirdSunbird
Family to which they belongTrochilidaeNectariniidae
Region they are foundAmericasAfrica, Asia, Australia
How they sip nectarWhile hoveringWhile being on a perch
Bill StructureLong and Narrow beakDownward Curved beak
Males vs Females SizesFemales are larger than MalesMales are larger than Females
Sound while flapping the wingsHum soundDifferent sounds such as fluttering, buzz, etc
Shape of nestsCup-shapedHanging purse

Let us see in detail each difference between a hummingbird and sunbird.

6 Differences between Hummingbird and Sunbird

1. Hummingbirds are from America whereas Sunbirds are from Africa, Asia and Australia

If you see a hummingbird-like bird outside of America, you can doubt if it is really a hummingbird. Hummingbirds are mostly found in North Canada, North and South America. Sunbirds are mostly found in Africa, Middle East, parts of Asia, Australia. 

2. Sunbirds perch while sipping nectar whereas hummingbirds hover

The biggest difference is in the way of feeding on nectar by these two birds. Hummingbirds hover on nectar whereas sunbirds feed on nectar while on a perch. It is the major difference to distinguish them. This is the reason that the flowers pollinated by hummingbirds often have no space for perch unlike the flowers pollinated by sunbirds. However, it was observed few sunbirds sometimes hover while feeding on nectar too but it is very very less.

Sunbirds are a small flock of birds that, whereas they lack the size and monochrome aspect like crows, perch like other similar birds to feed on the nectar. Hummers are similar to swifts and can feed on nectar without perching. For the areas where hummers are not found, sunbirds are those birds that replace the joy that could have been provided by hummers. And vice versa.

3. Hummingbirds make hum sound in wing flapping but sunbirds do not

The very reason why hummingbirds are called hummingbirds is due to the “hum” sound they make while flapping (more correctly fluttering) their wings. This is not seen in the case of sunbirds. You want to see how it sounds when a sunbird flaps wings at high speed? Check out this video below.

4. Bill structure is different in a hummingbird and sunbird

Mostly hummingbirds will have a long and narrow beak, particularly suited to feed on nectar from long hidden flowers. Sunbirds are characterized by downward curved beaks.

5. Ruby Throated and special hummingbirds are clearly different from sunbird

Some special species of hummingbirds such as Ruby Throated hummingbirds have bright red feathers, and their throat appearance is clearly identifiable. They are clearly distinct from the throat of sunbirds. This is one difference that can be handy in identifying these hummingbirds from sunbirds. However, this is not a feature with which we can differentiate between any hummingbird from a sunbird. This is a tip only to differentiate a ruby-throated hummingbird from a sunbird.

6. Nest shapes are different

Hummingbird nest shape is cup-shaped and that of sunbird is often hanging purse-shaped. Most birds have cup-shaped nests, not just hummingbirds. But sunbirds have their own complex way of nesting which is mostly hanging and purse shaped.


Although sunbirds and hummingbirds look similar and have a lot of things in common, I hope you got the differences between them. And based on the region you stay, it is easy to expect one of these birds only. However, if there is still confusion, use each of the above points as a checklist and try to identify the bird correctly. In most regions where hummers are not found, sunbirds act as replacements for the joy that hummers would have provided.