Birds of Egypt: “Cleopatra,” The Green Bee-Eater

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Cleopatra, The Green Bee-Eater of Egypt, "Merops Orientalis“

This is the first in a series of posts about my bird neighbors here in Egypt. I’m not a card carrying member of the Audubon Society, but I really love my bird neighbors, wherever I live. Here in the rural Nile Delta, birds are very different from my friends back on the farm in South Carolina. Come to think of it, all of my neighbors here are quite different from those in South Carolina! But I’ll stick to the birds for now. They are far less sensitive to the strange American Lady with her camera, and I don’t have to be quite so stealthy to take their pictures.

These pretty green birds have been catching my eye, and eluding my camera, for almost two years. Finally I caught this nice little beauty unaware while Mohamed and I were preparing new soil to add to our rooftop barrels. It is officially winter here, so even though most of the deciduous trees still haven’t lost their leaves, we must catch up on our winter gardening tasks while we have a chance. So we were up on the roof over our garage, preparing soil, and this nice green bird must have felt safe, seeing we were obviously occupied in a harmless activity nearby her perch in the Mulberry, or “Toot” Tree, as it is called in Arabic. I spied her up there, flashing bright green in the morning sunshine as she hunted bugs for breakfast. Nonchalantly I turned and went downstairs to grab my camera, praying her breakfast of bugs was big today. It was! I was able to set my camera on the fence of the roof to get a few really well focused shots before she felt full enough to leave her place at the mulberry table. That was fun!

Isn’t she gorgeous?

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Cleopatra, The Green Bee-Eater Bird Sitting Pretty in the Mulberry Tree

So I’ve just hunted her online, and we can learn more about this beautiful bird from :

The  (Merops orientalis) (sometimes ) is a near passerine bird [ I looked this up and learned it means a tree-dwelling, land bird] in the bee-eater family. It is resident but prone to seasonal movements and is found widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal and the Gambia to Ethiopia, the Nile valley, western Arabia and Asia through India to Vietnam.[2] They are mainly insect eaters and they are found in grassland, thin scrub and forest often quite far from water. Several regional plumage variations are known and several subspecies have been named.

Like other bee-eaters, this species is a richly coloured, slender bird. It is about 9 inches (16–18 cm) long with about 2 inches made up by the elongated central tail-feathers. The sexes are not visually distinguishable. The entire plumage is bright green and tinged with blue especially on the chin and throat. The crown and upper back are tinged with golden rufous. The flight feathers are rufous washed with green and tipped with blackish. A fine black line runs in front of and behind the eye. The iris is crimson and the bill is black while the legs are dark grey. The feet are weak with the three toes joined at the base.[3] Southeast Asian birds have rufous crown and face, and green underparts, whereas Arabian beludschicus has a green crown, blue face and bluish underparts. The wings are green and the beak is black. The elongated tail feathers are absent in juveniles. Sexes are alike.[2]

The calls is a nasal trill tree-tree-tree-tree, usually given in flight.[3]


Race orientalis from Coimbatore, India

Several populations have been designated as subspecies:[4]

viridissimus is found from Senegal to northern Ethiopia (has more green on the throat, crown and nape with long streamers) Cleopatra from the Nile Valley to northern Sudan flavoviridis from northern Chad to Sudan on the Arabian plateau (more yellowish green with narrow gorget on throat) cyanophrys found in Israel and the Arabian region (includes meccanusbeludschicusbiludschicus[5]) Iran to Pakistan (paler colours with a blue throat)[6] in India and Sri Lanka (has head and neck tinged with rufous)ferrugeiceps (=birmanus) in northeastern India, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam (has rufous crown, name and mantle) in Sri Lanka has the nape and hindneck with more pronounced golden brown sheen[7] often included within the nominate race

A study of species within the genus Merops based on plumage characteristics found that most of the subspecies of orientalis grouping together with the most similar species being Merops leschenaulti and subspecies ferrugeiceps appeared closer to that group.[8]

Leucistic individuals have been noted.[9]

Distribution and habitat:

This is an abundant and fairly tame bird, familiar throughout its range. It is a bird which breeds in open country with bushes. In Africa and Arabia it is found in arid areas, but is more diverse in its habitats further east. This species often hunts from low perches, maybe only a metre or less high. It readily makes use of fence wires and electric wires. Unlike some other bee-eaters, they can be found well away from water.[4]

They are mostly seen in the plains but can sometimes be found up to 5000 or 6000 feet in the Himalayas. They are resident in the lowlands of South Asia but some populations move seasonally but the patterns are not clear,[3] moving away to drier regions in the rainy season and to warmer regions in winter.[4] In parts of Pakistan, they are summer visitors.[10]

Behaviour and ecology:

Like other species in the genus, bee-eaters predominantly eat insects, especially bees, wasps and ants, which are caught in the air by sorties from an open perch. Before swallowing prey, a bee-eater removes stings and breaks the exoskeleton of the prey by repeatedly thrashing it on the perch. Migration is not known but they make seasonal movements in response to rainfall.[2] These birds are somewhat sluggish in the mornings and may be found huddled next to each other on wires sometimes with their bills tucked in their backs well after sunrise. They sand-bathe more frequently than other bee-eater species and will sometimes bathe in water by dipping into water in flight.[4] They are usually seen in small groups and often roost communally in large numbers (200-300). The birds move excitedly at the roost site and call loudly, often explosively dispersing before settling back to the roost tree.[11] The Little Green Bee-Eater is also becoming common in urban and sub-urban neighborhoods, and has been observed perching on television antennae, only to launch into a brief, zig-zag flight formation to catch an insect, then return to the same perch and consume the meal. This behaviour is generally observed between the hours of 7:00 and 8:00am, and after 4:00pm.

The breeding season is from March to June. Unlike many bee-eaters, these are often solitary nesters, making a tunnel in a sandy bank. The breeding pairs are often joined by helpers.[12][13]They nest in hollows in vertical mud banks. The nest tunnel that they construct can run as much as 5 feet long and the 3-5 eggs are laid on the bare ground in the cavity at the end of the tunnel. The eggs are very spherical and glossy white.[3] Clutch size varies with rainfall and insect food density. Both sexes incubate. The eggs hatch asynchronously with an incubation period of about 14 days and the chicks grow fledge in 3 to 4 weeks and in the fledging stage show a reduction in body weight.[14][15]

A study suggested that Green Bee-eaters may be capable of interpreting the behaviour of human observers. They showed an ability to predict whether a human at a particular location would be capable of spotting the nest entrance and then behaved appropriately to avoid giving away the nest location. The ability to look at a situation from another’s point of view was previously believed to be possessed only by primates.[16][17]

 (16)Watve Milind, Thakar J, Kale A, Pitambekar S. Shaikh I Vaze K, Jog M. Paranjape S. (2002). “Bee-eaters ( Merops orientalis) respond to what a predator can see”. 

 (17)Smitha, B., Thakar, J. & Watve, M. (1999). “Do bee eaters have theory of mind?”. Current Science : 574–577.

Riverside habitats were found to support high populations in southern India (157 birds per square kilometre) dropping off too 101 per km² in agricultural areas and 43-58 per square km near human habitations.[18]

They feed on flying insects and can sometimes be nuisance to bee-keepers.[19] The preferred prey was mostly beetles followed by hymenopterans. Orthopterans appear to be avoided.[20] They are sometimes known to take crabs.[21] Like most other birds they regurgitate the hard parts of their prey as pellets.[22]

Click Here for the Next Bird in the Series, “Hud Hud,” The Hoopoe


7 thoughts on “Birds of Egypt: “Cleopatra,” The Green Bee-Eater

  1. The “toot” tree. Isnt it fun learning new languages. I will learn much from you, i know this already.
    I lov lov birds and esp love the pretty green feathers on this one. thank you! 🙂


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