Shining Sunbird Cinnyris habessinicus Scientific name definitions

Guy M. Kirwan
Version: 2.0 — Published October 8, 2021


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A medium-sized sunbird with a relatively long, decurved bill; and is generally darker-plumaged than any sympatric sunbird. Adult male is golden green on the head and upperparts , with broad (but somewhat inconspicuous) carmine-red breastband , and black belly to undertail-coverts (showing some bluish or violet elements in suitable light), as well as blackish wings; the yellow pectoral tufts are visible in display, but rarely seen otherwise. Female is variable, in Arabia being generally dark sooty gray with slightly paler feather fringes to wing-coverts and tertials, albeit marginally paler on the underparts, with an obviously pale throat and clearly paler superciliary, slightly darker eyestripe and face-sides, and the feathers of the ventral region are broadly fringed whitish; in Africa, females are much paler, especially below, and less contrastingly plumaged.

Similar Species

In Arabia, male Palestine Sunbird (Cinnyris osea) could be confused with the male of the present species, but is smaller, lacks the red breast-band, and has orange-red and yellow pectoral tufts. In Africa, there is a degree of geographical overlap with Mariqua Sunbird (Cinnyris mariquensis), and males of the two species are very similar, but purple iridescence on crown of C. h. habessinicus and its yellow pectoral tufts are distinctive, whilst female habessinicus has uniform underparts, whereas those of mariquensis are heavily mottled dark on the throat, breast, and flanks. Juveniles of these two species also require careful separation, but at this age Mariqua Sunbird has a yellowish wash to the posterior underparts and, in males, the black throat patch continues patchily onto the breast and flanks. Female Shining Sunbird must also be compared with the same sex of Beautiful Sunbird (Cinnyris pulchellus) and Black-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris nectarinioides); versus both, the present species is larger, has a longer and straighter bill, and uniform underparts lacking any yellow.


Natal Down

Apparently undescribed.


In respect of African birds: the juvenile resembles the adult female, but has a black or sooty-gray throat (darker in the male), bordered off white, reaching onto the breast, and has some pale buff feather fringes above (1). The immature often has dark centers to the breast feathers, and in this plumage the male has the chin to neck metallic green, with indications of the red chest-band (2).

For Arabian populations, Shirihai and Svensson (3) noted that the juvenile again superficially resembles the adult female, but has a soft, fluffy appearance to the entire body plumage, and the chin to upper breast is darker (especially in the male), whilst the submoustachial stripe is whitish yellow, and the rest of the underparts yellowish with ill-defined dark streaking (more pronounced in the male). First-winter males have a darker central throat, often a blacker breast patch and a pale submoustachial stripe, and may already show some green on the head, back and breast, and red on the breast-band.


Female. The crown and upperparts (including the lesser and median wing coverts) are pale gray brown, with the longer uppertail coverts being darkest. Dark brown or blackish-brown tail with a faint blue tinge to the upperside, whilst the inner webs of the two outer pairs of rectrices are tipped and edged off white, with a narrower pale fringe to the next pair inwards. Remiges mainly dark gray brown, edged buff on the tertials and secondaries, and pale gray buff on the primaries; the alula, primary coverts, and greater coverts are also fringed with buff. Lores dark grayish; cheeks and ear coverts gray-brown. Chin gray-white, and otherwise pale brown-grey below, with a slight mottling on the throat and breast, a very pale yellow tinge on the belly, and dark streaks centrally on the otherwise gray-white undertail-coverts; the whitish underwing coverts are darker at their bases, with light brown or pale buff axillaries, and the inner borders to the undersides of the flight feathers are pale gray-buff.

Male. Has glossy purple forehead and crown, otherwise the head and upperparts are iridescent green (becoming more bluish on the uppertail coverts), with a golden sheen above and on the chin to upper breast, which are concolorous with most of the head. Rectrices black, tinged violet, the central pair with narrow metallic green margins. Most of upperwing is dull black with a slight violet-blue tinge, but the lesser and median wing coverts metallic golden green, and the tertials, greater coverts, and primary coverts are finely fringed metallic green in fresh plumage. Thin blue-green band above broad (7.5–11.0 mm deep) scarlet breast-band, the latter bordered below by a narrow iridescent dark blue band; pectoral tufts yellow, otherwise black below, including the underwing coverts and axillaries.


Data pertain almost solely to the two Arabian subspecies, from Shirihai and Svensson (3). In the austral autumn (August‒October), adults conduct a complete post-nuptial molt, and juveniles undertake a partial post-nuptial molt, thereby entering an intermediate first-winter plumage; adult has no so-called eclipse plumage. In the austral spring, there is apparently no pre-nuptial molt by adults, but first-year birds apparently undergo a complete molt at this season (mostly September‒December, but also one from southeast Egypt, i.e. nominate habessinicus, in March).

Bare Parts


Black (1, 2).

Iris and Facial Skin

Iris is dark brown (1, 2).

Tarsi and Toes

Black (1, 2).


Linear Measurements

Overall length ca. 11.5‒13.0 cm (3).

Linear measurements, in mm, with means and sample sizes in parentheses, of nominate subspecies and C. h. altera, from Fry et al. (1):

Males (nominate, Ethiopia) Females (nominate, Ethiopia) Males (nominate, Sudan) Males (C. h. altera, Somalia)
Wing length 67‒71 (68.5, n = 10 58‒62 (59.6, n = 10 65‒68 (66.6, n = 10 68‒71 (69.6, n = 10
Tail length 45‒51 (47.9, n = 10 37‒42 (39.6, n = 10
Bill length 21‒24 (22.7, n = 10 19‒23 (20.8, n = 10 20‒23 (21.8, n = 10 23‒26 (24.6, n​​​​​​​ = 10
Tarsus length 26‒27 (26.4, n​​​​​​​ = 10 15‒16 (16.3, n​​​​​​​ = 10

Linear measurements, in mm, with means and sample sizes in parentheses, of C. h. hellmayri and C. h. kinneari, from Shirihai and Svensson (3):

Males (C. h. hellmayri) Females (C. h. hellmayri) Males (C. h. kinneari) Females (C. h. kinneari)
Wing length 70.5‒74.0 (72.3, n​​​​​​​ = 14) 61‒66 (63.8, n​​​​​​​ = 8) 69.0‒76.5 (71.8, n​​​​​​​ = 15) 62.5‒70.0 (65.2, n​​​​​​​ = 8)
Tail length 49‒54 (51.6, n​​​​​​​ = 13) 40.5‒48.0 (44.4, n​​​​​​​ = 9) 47‒52 (50.0, n​​​​​​​ = 15) 44‒48 (45.8, n​​​​​​​ = 8)
Bill length 23‒27 (25.1, n​​​​​​​ = 15) 21.9‒24.9 (23.0, n​​​​​​​ = 9) 22.0‒26.3 (23.3, n​​​​​​​ = 15) 20.2‒22.0 (21.6, n​​​​​​​ = 8)

Additional measurements, from Cheke and Mann (2), presented under Subspecies. Mensural data from a reasonably large series from Ethiopia were presented by Friedmann (4).


C. h. habessinicus: males 9.5–11.5 g (mean 10.5 g, n = 16); females 7.5–9.5 g (mean 8.6 g, n = 29) ( 2).

C. h. turkanae: males 9.0–11.5 g (mean 10.0 g, n = 8); females 7–11 g (mean 9.1 g, n = 13) (1, 2).

C. h. hellmayri: males 10.6–12.0 g (n = 2); females 9.5–10.0 g (n​​​​​​​ = 2) (5).



Recommended Citation

Kirwan, G. M. (2021). Shining Sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (B. K. Keeney, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.shisun3.02