An aviary in the maritime Pacific Northwest is a habitat far from home for a bananaquit, a warbler-sized bird native to subtropical and tropical regions in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. But this newest addition to Woodland Park Zoo’s tropical rain forest dome is known for its ability to make itself right at home in a spot that is warm, leafy, and rich in fruit and flowers–which includes parts of southern Florida, where bananaquits drifting in from the Bahamas are sometimes glimpsed.
Indeed, in some parts of its range, the bananaquit is often called the sugar or molasses bird because it will fly right into a house to swipe sugar from an unguarded sugar bowl.
A fondness for sweets dominates a bananaquit’s diet in the wild, too. The bird uses its long, curved bill to pierce the base of a large flower. Then it uses its tongue as a straw to suck out nectar. This technique is also used to slurp juice from ripe fruit. Bananaquits also feed on insects and spiders.
At the zoo, the bananaquits will feast on a nutrient-rich, complete-diet “nectar formula” placed in shallow dishes. The exhibit will also be dotted with fresh fruits, such as grapes and strawberries, so that the birds can forage for their meals much as they do in the wild.
In time, as the birds settle into their exhibit, keepers will teach them to feed from a nectar dish held in a keeper’s hand.
Bananaquits are common throughout their range and are not considered vulnerable to becoming endangered. They thrive in a variety of open or partly open habitats; in their range, they’re “backyard birds” sighted frequently in parks and gardens. They aren’t fussed by the presence of humans. These features combine to make them ideal inhabitants for an aviary bustling with visitors.
The bananaquits you will see at the zoo sport black, white, and yellow plumage. In the wild, bananaquits range in color. The dark feathers run the gamut from sooty gray to black, the yellow ones from golden to greenish.
The bananaquit’s humorous name, however, doesn’t appear to have much to do with its yellow coloring. The name may have sprung from the birds’ habit of frequenting banana groves. That would explain the “banana” part, anyhow. “Quit” is a common Jamaican term for a “small bird,” perhaps imitative of a chip or pit call in origin. (Small birds that appear in Jamaican folktales are often called Quit-quit.)
Other names for the bananaquit in its homeland include, in addition to the aforementioned sugar or molasses bird, such monickers as yellow see-see, honeysucker, yellow-breast, paw-paw bird, Bessie Coban, beeny bird, and banana yuoki.
Look for these striking birds in the Tropical Rain Forest dome, which they share with other fascinating species such as sunbitterns and crested oropendolas.