Small White-Eye the ‘Heen Mal-Kurulla’
by Jagath Gunawardana
The White-Eyes, members of the family Zosteropidae, get this common name by the bold ring of tiny, soft, pure-white feathers that surround the eye. They are all small, arboreal birds with colours ranging from green, yellow to greyish and are widely distributed throughout Asia, Africa and Australia. This family is represented in Sri Lanka by two species. One, the Hill White-Eye is, as the name implies is mainly confined to the hills and is an endemic species.
The smaller, brightly-coloured Small White-Eye (Zosterops palpebrosa egregia) is the common and more widespread of the two. It is about 10 cm (4 in) in length or even smaller than a Tailor bird in size. The thin beak is painted and slightly curved. The tail is short and square. The wings are short and round. The upperparts are a bright greenish yellow with a more yellowish uppertail coverts. The tail is bright greenish - yellow above and grey beneath. The sides of the neck are dark yellow blending into the bright yellow chin, throat and foreneck. The breast and abdomen are dull white and is tinged with yellow in some individuals. The undertail coverts are a bright yellow. The eyes are red or dark brown, surrounded by the characteristic bright white ring. The black beak has a greyish base. Legs and feet grey or blue - grey in colour. The plumages of males and females are similar.
It is an always active bird that associate in pairs or small flocks of about 8 individuals, but can at times be seen in larger gatherings of 20 or more. It usually haunts the leafy, upper branches of trees. The colours of the body blend perfectly with those of the surrounding foliage, making a perfect camouflage. It never stays still, constantly walking and hopping among branches, or flying from tree to tree. When flying from tree to tree, one bird follows the other and do not move together. They are entirely arboreal, but a flock may come down to a pond to take a bath. If a bird-bath is available, they will come down to it and not to the ground. The flight is fast with rapid fluttering of the short wings. The usually uttered call notes are a pleasant, whistling "chee-chee" that is repeated in quick succession or a short "tew, tew". The calls are made both while walking about and in flight. A flock is quite noisy and their presence is quite often betrayed by the constant calling.
A peculiarity noted by Vincent Legge (1880) is that they sing more than usual on breezy days. He has stated that ‘on windy days it is more on the move than at other times and its tiny note is heard above the roar of the storm in the forest more plainly than the louder notes of other birds’. This observation has been confirmed by Mrs. Cecily Lushigton who had a lot of experiences in bird-watching in the hill country. This has not been noted by me but have seen it more active on bright days.
It feeds on the nectar of flowers and is a good pollinator and can sometimes be seen with the forehead and face smeered with pollen. In addition it feeds on small berries like the jam fruit and on small creatures. In searching for prey, foliage is probed methodically, looking at each and every leaf on both sides and flowers carefully before proceeding further. It may move up and down branches in search of food and can even hang upside down. A peaceful bird, the Small White-Eye can often be seen in the company of other species such as the Loten’s Sunbird, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Small Flowerpecker, Common Iora, Little Minivet, Orange Minivet and Grey not allowed, while foraging for food. In areas where their ranges overlap, the Small White-Eye is often seen in the company of the Hill White Eye. During the hot midday, they cease activities and rests in a well-shaded branch, often closely huddled as a group.
The main breeding season is from April to June though nesting occurs from February to September and it is possible that a pair may raise more than one brood during a season. The groups tend to breek-up and birds are often seen as pairs in the breeding season. The nest is a small, neatly-made, deep cup-like structure suspended between two small branches. The nest is made up of fibrous material and the interior is lined up with fine fibres like cotton and kapok. The nest is constructed high up on a tree and is concealed among the foliage. Two pale blue eggs are usually laid in a nest. They take about 10 days to hatch and the young leave the nest after another 10-12 days. Both parents engage in nest building, incubation and tending of young.
The Small White Eye is found throughout the low country wet and dry zones and in the hills upto 1,500 meters. Though common, it is often overlooked due to the camouflage colouration. It often ventures into home gardens with sufficient trees and favours trees such as Jak, Beli, Mango and Kapok that are thickly foliaged. The sub-species Z. palpebrose egregia that is found in Sri Lanka is endemic to the country. The species has a wide distribution through much of Asia. The Small White Eye is also known as the Oriental White Eye and is called the Heen Mal-Kurulla in Sinhala.