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  1. 144 Photo by John Vogel
  2. 144_0 Photo by Georgina Steytler
  3. 144_1 Photo by Chris Tate
  4. 144_2 Photo by Rod Smith
  5. 144_3 Photo by Rod Smith

Rainbow Bee-eater

Merops ornatus


  • Colour: a colourful bird, the upper part of its back is bright green, merging to light blue on the lower part to its rump. Its tail is black, tinged with blue, and has two long central feathers (called streamers) that extend beyond the tip of the tail. Its forehead is blue-green and the top of its head is golden. A bold black eye-stripe runs from the base of its beak and is bordered below by a narrow blue line. Its chin is yellow, changing to chestnut on its throat, below which is a broad black band. It has a green breast, becoming paler on the belly and changing to light blue from the lower belly to the vent.  It has a long, slim, curved black beak and its legs and feet are grey-black.
  • Young birds are generally duller and greener. They lack the black band across the lower throat and the long tail streamers.
  • The sexes differ in the length of their tail streamers: the male has longer, more slender streamers.
  • Size: 21 – 28 cm long; the wingspan of males is 34 cm, and 31 cm for females.


  • Call: a liquid, trilling “prrp prrp”, usually given in flight.
  • Diet: mainly bees and wasps but also other insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, as well as moths and butterflies. Most insects are captured in flight, although some insects are very occasionally taken from the ground and foliage. Bees and wasps are rubbed against a perch to remove their sting before they are eaten, and other prey is usually beaten against the perch before being eaten.
  • Flight: swift, and may include a series of rapid twists and turns when in pursuit of prey. It is usually seen in pairs or small flocks but sometimes occur in larger groups, sometimes of up to 500, when on migration.
  • Movement: its patterns of movement are complex and not completely understood. After breeding, southern populations move north between February and June (mostly between March and May) to spend the winter in northern Australia, New Guinea or eastern Indonesia. They return to their breeding areas in southern Australia between August and early November, though mostly between mid-September and mid-October. In northern Australia, part of the population is present throughout the year, with some individuals moving to different habitats during the non-breeding season, while other birds from the population migrate to southern Australia.
  • Breeding: it nests in loose colonies that may contain up to 50 pairs, although some pairs nest solitarily. They sexes select a site the banks of rivers, creeks or dams, roadside cuttings, gravel pits or quarries or cliffs, where both sexes (though mostly the female) dig a long tunnel. At the end of the tunnel is a nesting chamber, sometimes lined with grass or feathers. Between two and eight (usually five) pearl-white eggs are laid, which are incubated by both parents for 22–31 days. The young remain in the nest for 23–36 days, where they are fed by both parents. They continue to be fed for 2–4 weeks after they leave the nest. The parents are sometimes assisted by ‘helper’ birds, usually males.

What to Observe

  • Courting/mating
  • Calling
  • Feeding
  • Bird on chicks
  • Bird on eggs
  • Bird on nest
  • Bird feeding young

ClimateWatch Science Advisor

Climate change is most likely to affect Rainbow Bee-eaters by changing their migration times and breeding season. With the warming climate we could expect Rainbow Bee-eaters to migrate earlier, and to breed earlier, in southern Australia. It may also affect the duration of their breeding activities. Help scientists answer the question: "How are our animals, plants and ecosystems responding to climate change?" by recording the observations above.

When To Look

  • From November to January in southern Australia, and from August to January in northern Australia for breeding behaviour.
  • From September–October for birds on their southern passage, and March–May for birds on their northward migration.
  • Young birds remain in the nest for about 28 days.

Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in the timing of these events, so remember to keep a lookout from July in northern Australia and from October in southern Australia for breeding activity!

Where To Look

  • Usually in open, cleared or lightly-timbered areas, often near water. As well as open forests, woodlands, shrublands and cleared areas, it also occurs in farmland, settled areas, and, in northern Australia, in mangroves.
  • Throughout mainland Australia; it has not been recorded in Tasmania, and is sparsely distributed in the driest of arid regions.
  • Look along sandy banks for nesting sites. It is often seen sitting on prominent perches, often on dead branches, overhead wires or fences, or soaring or drifting in groups overhead. It is often heard before it is seen.

Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in their known ranges, so remember to keep a lookout anywhere in Australia!


Rainbow Bee-eater compiled distribution map - BirdLife International


Where To Look

Maps of Habitat Suitability


Current probability
of occurrence
2070 probability
of occurrence (RCP 8.5)
Species range change from
current to 2070 probability

Above, the left and middle maps show the modelled habitat suitability for the the species under current and potential future climate conditions. The colours indicate the predicted habitat suitability from low (white) to high (dark red).

The future habitat suitability is modelled for the year 2070 under a climate change scenario that represents 'business as usual' (RCP 8.5). The map on the right shows how the range of the species might change between now and 2070, with orange areas indicating where the species might disappear, green areas where the species range might expand, and blue areas where the habitat is predicted to be suitable for the species now and in the future.

The models for this species were run in the Biodiversity and Climate Change Virtual Laboratory. Please note that while models can be very informative, they are only a representation of the real world and thus should always be viewed with caution. You can read more about the science behind these models here.



Barrett G, Silcocks A, Barry S, Cunningham R and Poulter R 2003. The New Atlas of Australian Birds. Melbourne, Victoria: Birds Australia.

Higgins PJ (ed) 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Volume 4 (Parrots to Dollarbird). Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Morcombe M 2000. Field Guide to Australian Birds. Steve Parish Publishing Pty Ltd, Archerfield, Qld.

Strahan R (ed) 1994. Cuckoos, Nightbirds and Kingfishers of Australia. Angus and Robertson/Australian Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife, Sydney.

  1. Search Species

  1. What Else?

    • It is a distinctive bird that should not be mistaken for any other species.
    • A Kingfisher: plumper, has a straight beak, its plumage is less colourful and it never catches its prey in flight.
  1. Did You Know?

    The call recording is by David Stewart Naturesound

    It is the only species of bee-eater in Australia.

    It weighs 26 – 30 grams.

    Foxes are a threat to the Rainbow Bee-eater, as they dig out the nests to eat the chicks. Nesting is disrupted by human activity in mines or quarries.

  1. Listen to the Call