You don’t go into a national park to look for a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus). But if you find one sipping nectar from flowers right by the road, you do stop to take a photo. This may be a common bird, but it looks beautiful, and is more than a little mysterious. Does it migrate locally? A Purple sunbird banded in Bharatpur is said to have been recovered in Dehra Dun. Mysterious or beautiful, this one was a minor star. I counted more than a dozen birders with long lenses clustered together taking a photo of this heedless individual. It fluttered from one bunch of flowers to another, perching delicately each time before dipping its curved beak into the flowers to sip at the nectar.
It was February when we saw this individual in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. There are major differences in colouration between the male and the female, breeding and non-breeding males, and eclipse and breeding plumage in adult males. This was a adult male whose plumage was readying itself for a breeding season which would start in a couple of months. Surprising genetic information comes from the Purple Sunbird. An ancient version of the Hepatitis B virus was found to have inserted itself into its genome, and that of many other species of birds. A comparison of these genetic fossils and modern Hepatitis B viruses show that it switched from birds to mammals about 10 million years ago. Even this common bird teaches us about the incredible history of life on earth.