Australian Bush Birds
Rainbow Bee-eater  -  Merops ornatus
Rainbow Bee-eaters select regular perches, such as this horizontal branch, then zoom from the perch to take insects, wasps and bees in flight before returning to the perch to eat their prey. (Douglas-Daly reserve, NT)
Rainbow Bee-eater sitting on the same perch as the top photograph. This bird regularly swoops on passing insects from this perch returning to the branch holding the insect in its bill. The extended central tail feathers characteristic of this species are readily seen<; in males (seen here) the feathers are long, in females much shorter.> (Douglas-Daly reserve, NT)
The Rainbow Bee-eater - Merops ornatus - is a small bird (21 to 24 centimetres long) frequently seen on horizontal perches watching for passing insects, bees or wasps, or engaged in flight aerobatics to chase and catch flying prey which is seized in the bill and taken back to the perch where it is beaten against the wood and any sting squeezed out before being eaten. Several hundred wasps and bees may be eaten in a single day; indigestible insect parts are excreted as pellets.

Rainbow Bee-eater - page 2
Rainbow Bee-eater Rainbow Bee-eater
Front and side views; note the variability in the extent and intensity of the orange head colouring. (left at Douglas-Daly, right at Katherine, both NT)
map map Bee-eaters may also sweep back and forth through the air catching and eating several insects before returning to the perch.

Bee-eaters have partly-fused toes with reportedly weak feet and legs; they are generally considered incapable of much more than clasping a branch while sitting but they routinely use their feet to remove sand and soil when digging out nesting tunnels.

Rainbow Bee-eaters have been observed foraging on the ground and taking earthworms; they have also been seen feeding in water by hovering over a river or dam then plunging the bill into the water to snatch prey which is taken to the perch to feed. Bee-eaters have been known to hunt around commercial bee-hives feeding extensively on honey-bees; bee-keepers consider them pests.

This is a colourful bird with a prominent black, pointed, long and slightly down-curved bill. Overall colour is greenish-blue with yellow, orange and blue parts. The eye is red, feet are dark grey, claws black. Underside of wings is orange. There is a prominent black line running from the base of the bill and through the eye; this line is edged with turquoise top and bottom. Another broad black line across the throat may have a blue wash on the lower edge. The tail has two central feathers grown into long, narrow streamers; males have longer streamers than females.

Adult males and females are similarly coloured; females are slightly duller with shorter, thicker tail streamers. Juveniles are similar to adults but with subdued colouring; juveniles lack the black throat band and tail streamers, eyes are brown.

Breeding takes place from November to January in southern populations. Northern populations breed before and after the wet season, in September-October and May to July. Nests are a tunnel up to a metre or more long dug in sand or loam.

Nests are often gathered in loose colonies, although some pairs establish solitary nests. Some birds return to the same nesting area each year but excavate a new nest burrow each year. The nest is an enlarged chamber at the end of the tunnel excavated by both birds in flat or sloping ground in the banks of rivers, creeks or dams, in roadside cuttings, in the walls of gravel pits or quarries, or in cliff faces. The burrow entrance is a little larger than the birds body. The burrow is dug with the bill and scraped out with the feet. Breeding pairs are sometimes assisted by younger, non-breeding birds, usually males, to look after the young as 'helpers'.

Rainbow Bee-eater - page 3
Rainbow Bee-eater Rainbow Bee-eater
The prominent black bill and black eye-line are major identification features for the Rainbow Bee-eater. The variety of plumage colours is also very useful. (Douglas-Daly Reserve, NT)
The nest chamber is generally unlined with eggs laid directly on bare earth or sand but sometimes the chamber is lined with grass, feathers, snail shells or wasp wings. The female lays a clutch of two to eight eggs, usually four or five, laid every second day. Eggs are pearl-white about 24 millimetres by 18 millimetres. Eggs are incubated by both parents, assisted by helpers, for about 22 to 31 days.

The young birds remain in the burrow-nest for 23 to 36 days and are fed by the parents, and helpers, for another two to four weeks after they first leave the nest. Studies of two breeding areas over three years indicate an average of 1.8 chicks fledge from each clutch of eggs laid.

Nests of the Rainbow Bee-eater built on the ground or in the banks of rivers and creeks are susceptible to predation, flooding and trampling. Known predators include foxes, dingoes, feral dogs, cane toads, goannas, brown snakes, Magpies and Goshawks. Heavy rain, flooding and livestock also present threats to Rainbow Bee-eater nests.

Inhabits open woodlands, open forest, semi-arid scrub, grasslands, farmland, clearings in heavier forest. They avoid heavy forest where there is insufficient air-space for their flying pursuit of aerial prey. In the breeding season they need open paddocks or a clearing with loamy soil soft enough for nest tunnelling yet firm enough to support the tunnel.

The Rainbow Bee-eater is found over most of the Australian mainland (not reported from Tasmania, from southern Victoria, or from the more arid parts of southern Western Australia). Populations are broadly divided into northern and southern.

Populations breeding in southern Australia migrate north (between February and April) after breeding and remain in the north for the winter in southern Australia (returning in September and October). Other populations breeding in northern Australia remain there all year but may move between habitats in this time (e.g from coastal breeding sites into more open habitats). Migration patterns of the Rainbow Bee-eater are not fully understood and are complicated by some birds migrating to Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia. These birds reach northern Australia on the return flight from August to October (maximum numbers in September). Bee-eaters returns to breeding grounds in southern Australia from August to early November (most birds arrive between mid-September and mid-October).

The non-breeding range of the Bee-eater in northern Australia extends throughout the coastal tropics, subtropics and continental islands, southward to the Pilbara region and Carnarvon in Western Australia, to approximately 200 kilometres south of Katherine in the Northern Territory, and to the channel country of south-western Queensland. In eastern Australia, the non-breeding range extends southward along the Great Dividing Range to Iluka in north-eastern New South Wales.

Populations of the Rainbow Bee-eater gather together into flocks before migration. The migrating flocks, which can consist of tens to hundreds or thousands of birds, often fly high above the ground. They travel in loose parties, constantly calling to each other and roost together at night, cramming into the same shrubby tree. Migration generally takes place during daylight hours, although some movements have been recorded on moonlit nights.

The Rainbow Bee-eater was classed as a noxious pest in Queensland in the 1930s and a bounty was paid for dead ones. It was also shot for the millinery trade. The species is now protected.

Common names include Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bird and Australian Bee-eater.