Bee Eater

Birds of the Meropidae Family

The name Bee Eater was apparently first used in 1668 by Charleton (Onomasticon, p. 87) as a translation of the Latin and Greek Merops, though he said that the bird was rarely or never found in England - the European Bee Eater being the Merops apiaster of ornithology.  The term Bee Eater being appropriate (as is shown by its equivalent in cognate tongues-Danish, Biaeder; German, Bienenfresser), it has been continued to be applied to this species, and subsequently extended to others more or less closely allied to it, forming a small but natural Family, Meropidae.

They belong to the order Coraciiformes, and are distinguished for their brilliant coloration, their graceful form, and their active habits, since every species of Meropidae seems to obtain its living by catching insects as they fly. The Bee-eaters are birds of the Old World, and the majority of the species are peculiar to the African region, while only a few inhabit the Palaearctic area, one of them being the Merops apiaster, named above, which appears irregularly in Northern Europe in summer.  This bird's first recorded occurrence in the UK was in June 1793, when a flight of about twenty was observed in Norfolk, and a specimen obtained at that time was preserved in the Derby Museum at Liverpool until at least the 1800s (although I have no knowlege of whether this specimen still exists).  Between 1793 and the end of the the 19th Century the Bee Eater was reported to have been a visitor the England more than 30 times.  Currently in the early 21st Century, this bird still visits the UK, although sightings are rare here.

Bee Eater Identification

The Bee Eater is certainly one of the most beautifully-coloured birds ever found in the UK or indeed anywhere.  No one who has ever seen one of these birds will forget its rich chestnut crown and mantle passing lower down into primrose, its white frontal band, the black patch extending from the bill to the ear-coverts and the saffron throat bordered with black.  Most of the rest of the plumage is of a vivid greenish-blue or bluish-green, and the middle pair of tail feathers are elongated and attenuated in a way that is not seen in any other British land-bird.

Interesting Species of Bee Eater

This formation of the tail characterizes also the single species of the genus Meropogon, this being the Purple-Bearded Bee-eater, Meropogon forsteni,  while the Swallow-tailed Bee-eater,Merops hirundinaeus (previously or also known as Dicrocercus) has the tail deeply forked, and in the Red Throated Bee Eater, Merops bulocki (previously or also known as Melittophagus) the tail is nearly even.

In the Genus Nyctiornis, contains two species, both of who also have almost even tails.  Within this genus the Red Bearded Bee Eater ranges from Burma to Borneo.  The other (the largest of the whole Family), the Blue Bearded Bee Eater inhabits India as well as Burma and Cochin China, and is readily distinguishable by the remarkable elongated feathers of the gular tract.

Around six species of the Family show themselves in the Cape of Africa or parts immediately adjacent, and one, the Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus, occurs over almost the whole of Australia.

Homes of the Bee Eater

The Meropidae have much in common with the Coraciidae (ROLLER), Alcedinidae (KINGFISHER), Momotidae (MOTMOT), and especially with the Galbulidae (JACAMAR), for not only are there many anatomical resemblances between the birds of these Families, but nearly all of them, so far as is known - the Rollers perhaps being the chief exceptions - breed in holes made by themselves in a bank of earth.  These homes, or at least those of the species of the genus Merops, it would seem, nearly always are created in a society or group.


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