The Streamertails (genus Trochilus) are hummingbirds found only on the island of Jamaica situated in the Caribbean Sea. On the island, they are also commonly referred to as Green-and-black Streamertails, Jamaican Streamertails or simply Streamertail. They were named for the greatly elongated outer tail feathers (retrices) of the males.
The Streamertails are currently divided into two species, based on differences in the color and width of the bill, to some degree also body size and differences in courtship behavior and vocalizations. However, some authorities, including the American Ornithologists’ Union, consider them one species …
- Red-billed Streamertail aka God Bird, Doctorbird, Scissors Tail, Longtail Hummingbird or Western Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) – Found west of a line from Morant Bay following the Morant River, and via Ginger House and the middle Rio Grande to Port Antonio.
- Black-billed Streamertail (Trochilus scitulus or Trochilus polytmus scitulus) – Only found in the very eastern parts of Jamaica. Some consider them a subspecies of the Red-billed Streamertail)
The ranges of these two species overlap between the Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain ranges in eastern Jamaica, where they are known to hybridize.
Interesting Facts about Streamertails:
The Streamertail is the national bird of Jamaica.
Their common name “Streamertailed” is derived from the male’s two very long scalloped black tail feathers that create a distinctive whirring noise in flight. Females, juvenile males or molting males do not have these long tail feathers.
The origin of the name ‘Doctor Bird’ or “Doctor Hummingbird” is disputed. Most attribute it to the erect black crest and tail that resemble the old-fashioned top hat and long tail coats doctors used to wear. Others state that this name originates from the way these birds pierce the flowers with their bills to extract nectar.
Jamaican Folklore: The original inhabitants of Jamaica – the Arawaks – believed that these hummingbirds were the reincarnation of dead souls and had magical powers; and accordingly referred to them as “God Birds.” Harming these birds is considered to bring bad fortune on one’s self.
These birds are not only revered by the people of Jamaica, but are also a favorite attraction of the visitors to the island, who can get a close-up view of these birds at the Rockland’s Bird Sanctuary and Feeding Station located just south of Montego Bay in Anchovy. This park was founded by Lisa Salmon in 1958, and she trained hummingbirds to feed out of the hands of park visitors. This spectacular display has attracted many prominent visitors, including European Royalty and Winston Churchill – amongst many others.
Diet / Feeding
Streamertails primarily feed on nectar taken from a variety of brightly colored, scented small flowers of trees, herbs, shrubs and epiphytes. They favor flowers with the highest sugar content (often red-colored and tubular-shaped) and seek out, and aggressively protect, those areas containing flowers with high energy nectar.
They use their long, extendible, straw-like tongues to retrieve the nectar while hovering with their tails cocked upward as they are licking at the nectar up to 13 times per second. Sometimes they may be seen hanging on the flower while feeding.
Many native and cultivated plants on whose flowers these birds feed heavily rely on them for pollination. The mostly tubular-shaped flowers actually exclude most bees and butterflies from feeding on them and, subsequently, from pollinating the plants.
They may also visit local hummingbird feeders for some sugar water, or drink out of bird baths or water fountains where they will either hover and sip water as it runs over the edge; or they will perch on the edge and drink – like all the other birds; however, they only remain still for a short moment.
They also take some small spiders and insects – important sources of protein particularly needed during the breeding season to ensure the proper development of their young. Insects are often caught in flight (hawking); snatched off leaves or branches, or are taken from spider webs. A nesting female can capture up to 2,000 insects a day.
Males establish feeding territories, where they aggressively chase away other males as well as large insects – such as bumblebees and hawk moths – that want to feed in their territory. They use aerial flights and intimidating displays to defend their territories.
Breeding / Nesting
Thanks to the island’s temperate climate, breeding occurs throughout the year; however, most nesting activities are observed between April through June. Males attract females by waving and showing off his long his streamers.
Hummingbirds are solitary in all aspects of life other than breeding; and the male’s only involvement in the reproductive process is the actual mating with the female. They neither live nor migrate in flocks; and there is no pair bond for this species. Males court females by flying in a u-shaped pattern in front of them. He will separate from the female immediately after copulation. One male may mate with several females. In all likelihood, the female will also mate with several males. The males do not participate in choosing the nest location, building the nest or raising the chicks.
The female Streamertail is responsible for building the tiny cup-shaped nest out of plant fibers woven together and green moss on the outside for camouflage in a protected location in a shrub, bush or tree (or as can be seen on the image to the right – they may take advantage of man-made structures). She lines the nest with soft plant fibers, animal hair and feather down, and strengthens the structure with spider webbing and other sticky material, giving it an elastic quality to allow it to stretch to double its size as the chicks grow and need more room. The nest is typically found on a low, skinny horizontal branch.
The average clutch consists of two bean-sized, white eggs, which she incubates alone for about 14 to 20 days, while the male defends his territory and the flowers he feeds on. The young are born blind, immobile and without any down. The female alone protects and feeds the chicks with regurgitated food (mostly partially-digested insects since nectar is an insufficient source of protein for the growing chicks). The female pushes the food down the chicks’ throats with her long bill directly into their stomachs.
As is the case with other hummingbird species, the chicks are brooded only the first week or two, and left alone even on cooler nights after about 12 days – probably due to the small nest size. The chicks leave the nest when they are about 3 weeks old.
Red-billed Streamertails can produce 1 to 3 broods per year.
Calls / Vocalizations / Sounds
Their calls are described as sharp, loud, high-pitched teeet-teeet or tee-tee-tee; or loud, metallic-sounding “chink-chink” or “‘ting, ting.”
Their voices are commonly heard on the island. The long tail streamers of the males are scalloped and fluted on the inside, creating high whining humming sounds in flight.