HONEY-EATER, or Honey-sucker, names applied by many writers in a very loose way to a large number of birds, some of which, perhaps, have no intimate affinity; here they are used in a more restricted sense for what, in the opinion of a good many recent authorities, should really be deemed the family Meliphagidae—excluding therefrom the Nectariniidae or Sun-birds (q.v.) as well as the genera Promerops and Zosterops with whatever allies they may possess. Even with this restriction, the extent of the family must be regarded as very indefinite, owing to the absence of materials sufficient for arriving at a satisfactory conclusion, though the existence of such a family is probably indisputable. Making allowance, then, for the imperfect light in which they must at present be viewed, what are here called Meliphagidae include some of the most characteristic forms of the ornithology of the great Australian region—members of the family inhabiting almost every part of it, and a single species only, Ptilotis limbata, being said to occur outside its limits. They all possess, or are supposed to possess, a long protrusible tongue with a brush-like tip, differing, it is believed, in structure from that found in any other bird—Promerops perhaps excepted—and capable of being formed into a suctorial tube, by means of which honey is absorbed from the nectary of flowers, though it would seem that insects attracted by the honey furnish the chief nourishment of many species, while others undoubtedly feed to a greater or less extent on fruits. The Meliphagidae, as now considered, are for the most part small birds, never exceeding the size of a missel thrush; and they have been divided into more than 20 genera, containing above 200 species, of which only a few can here be particularized. Most of these species have a very confined range, being found perhaps only on a single island or group of islands in the region, but there are a few which are more widely distributed—such as Glycyphila rufifrons, the white-throated honey-eater, found over the greater part of Australia and Tasmania. In plumage they vary much. Most of the species of Ptilotis are characterized by a tuft of white, or in others of yellow, feathers springing from behind the ear. In the greater number of the genus Myzomela the males are recognizable by a gorgeous display of crimson or scarlet, which has caused one species, M. sanguinolenta, to be known as the soldier-bird to Australian colonists; but in others no brilliant colour appears, and those of several genera have no special ornamentation, while some have a particularly plain appearance. One of the most curious forms is Prosthemadera—the tui or parson-bird of New Zealand, so called from the two tufts of white feathers which hang beneath its chin in great contrast to its dark silky plumage, and suggest a likeness to the bands worn by ministers of several religious denominations when officiating. The bell-bird of the same island, Anthornis melanura—whose melody excited the admiration of Cook the morning after he had anchored in Queen Charlotte’s Sound—is another member of this family, and unfortunately seems to be fast becoming extinct. But it would be impossible here to enter much further into detail, though the wattle-birds, Anthochaera, of Australia have at least to be named. Mention, however, must be made of the friar-birds, Tropidorhynchus, of which nearly a score of species, five of them belonging to Australia, have been described. With their stout bills, mostly surmounted by an excrescence, they seem to be the most abnormal forms of the family, and most of them are besides remarkable for the baldness of some part at least of their head. They assemble in troops, sitting on dead trees, with a loud call, and are very pugnacious, frequently driving away hawks and crows. A. R. Wallace (Malay Archipelago, ii. 150–153) discovered the curious fact that two species of this genus—T. bourensis and T. subcornutus—respectively inhabiting the islands of Bouru and Ceram, were the object of natural “mimicry” on the part of two species of oriole of the genus Mimeta, M. bourouensis and M. forsteni, inhabiting the same islands, so as to be on a superficial examination identical in appearance—the honey-eater and the oriole of each island presenting exactly the same tints—the black patch of bare skin round the eyes of the former, for instance, being copied in the latter by a patch of black feathers, and even the protuberance on the beak of the Tropidorhynchus being imitated by a similar enlargement of the beak of the Mimeta. The very reasonable explanation which Wallace offers is that the pugnacity of the former has led the smaller birds of prey to respect it, and it is therefore an advantage for the latter, being weaker and less courageous, to be mistaken for it. (A. N.)
- Among them especially A. R. Wallace, Geogr. Distr. Animals, ii. 275.
- The young of this species has the throat yellow.
- W. A. Forbes published a careful monograph of this genus in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society for 1879, pp. 256-279.
- This bird, according to Sir Walter Buller (Birds of New Zealand, p. 88), while uttering its wild notes, indulges in much gesticulation, which adds to the suggested resemblance. It has great power of mimicry, and is a favourite cage-bird both with the natives and colonists. On one occasion, says Buller, he had addressed a large meeting of Maories on a matter of considerable political importance, when “immediately on the conclusion of my speech, and before the old chief to whom my arguments were chiefly addressed had time to reply, a tui, whose netted cage hung to a rafter overhead, responded in a clear, emphatic way, ‘Tito!’ (false). The circumstance naturally caused much merriment among my audience, and quite upset the gravity of the venerable old chief, Nepia Taratoa. ‘Friend,’ said he, laughing, ‘your arguments are very good; but my mokai is a very wise bird, and he is not yet convinced!’ ”