Rainbow Bee-eaters return


Early October heralds the return to the Perth area of one of Australia’s most colourful birds, the Rainbow Bee-eater (Merops ornatus). This bird, with its striking plumage of green, blue, orange and black, is a familiar site in the woodlands around Perth during the late spring and early summer as it undergoes its annual breeding cycle.

The Rainbow Bee-eater is one of the few Australian birds that nest in a burrow. It breeds in open areas with friable, sandy soil, good visibility and convenient perches (Boland, 2004). As a result of nesting in burrows they are susceptible to many forms of disturbance as well as predation by dingoes, foxes, goannas and cane toads (Boland, 2004). They will also regularly use disturbed sites such as quarries, gravel pits, roadside cuttings and mullock heaps in which to nest.

It is a widespread bird throughout Australia, although it is absent from the central deserts and from Tasmania (Higgins, 1999). Rainbow bee-eaters are migratory with birds moving south for the summer to breed and returning north to over-winter in northern Australia, Indonesia and southern New Guinea (Johnstone and Storr, 1998). Many northern populations are considered resident.

The Rainbow Bee-eater was previously listed as a migratory species on the EPBC Act 1999 but was removed in mid-2016. It is still listed under Schedule 5 of the Department of Parks and Wildlife threatened species lists, however, this is likely to be revised in November 2016 when the revised WA Gazette is released. If you see the Rainbow Bee-eater or its characteristic nest burrows, please give it some space and observe from a short distance.


Thanks to Ray Turnbull for drafting this post.

Images – top: Rainbow Bee-eater (Merops ornatus) credit – Ray Turnbull; bottom: Rainbow Bee-eater burrow


Boland, C,R,J. 2004. Breeding biology of Rainbow Bee-eaters (Merops ornatus): a migratory, colonial, cooperative bird. Auk 121: 811-823.

Higgins, P.J. 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, vol. 4: Parrots to Dollarbirds. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Johnstone, R.E. and Storr, G.M. 1998. Handbook of Western Australian Birds. Volume 1 – Non-Passerines (Emu to Dollarbird). Western Australian Museum.

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13 Responses to “Rainbow Bee-eaters return”

  1. Roger Puttman on March 21st, 2020 8:04 am

    Hi I found a dead rainbow bee eater on the side of the road in Rockingham next to Warramunga Park. About three weeks ago so late Feb. Had no idea what is was but found it on this site. Sad, it was a pretty bird. I thought it might have been an escaped exotic. I wonder where it lived? It very urban nearby.

  2. Peter on November 17th, 2020 8:11 am

    How deep do Rainbow Bee-eaters burrow when nesting? There are a few burrows in a vacant lot next to us. I wonder if they survive a vehicle driving over it.

  3. Scott Thompson on November 17th, 2020 9:03 am

    Peter, Our experience is that the holes are not that deep. Normally only 300-450mm deep. Foxes and dogs regularly dig them out and eat the chicks/eggs. It would depend on the substrate whether they would survive a car driving over them, but given they nest mainly in sandy soil, I think the hole would collapse.

  4. Amanda Turnbull on February 21st, 2021 4:44 pm

    I am a bird enthusiast and there are three areas in my suburb that have these birds nest every year. I always contact the local council where I see nests in grassed areas that get mowed. They come and mark the nests and don’t mow for a few months. Stunning birds but very vunerable nesting in the ground. I have also just in the last few weeks spotted two varigated fairy wrens in full colour in Starr Swamp North beach Perth and another close location. This is apparently rare??. They are an eastern states variety??

  5. susanne Johnston on March 12th, 2021 9:43 pm

    Hello, heard, and then looked up and saw several of these little delights clicking and clacking and catching in mid-flight today at “BlackBoy Park, in Karalundie Way (near Dampier Terrace), Mullaloo, 6027. Are they now preparing to depart/migrate for the cool weather, I wonder? XS

  6. Scott Thompson on March 13th, 2021 5:09 am

    Yes, it won’t be much longer before they form little flocks and move to the warmer areas

  7. Graeme Worth on March 21st, 2021 9:45 am

    Amanda Turnbull: re variegated Fairy Wrens at Star Swamp. What used to be called Variegated Fairy Wrens are now Purple-backed Fairy Wrens everywhere except E of the Great Dividing Range, so what you saw was a Purple-backed. They are not particularly rare as far as I know – quite a lot of sightings across the northern suburbs, and I have nad them in my back yard in Scarborough on a couple of occasions over the last year.

  8. Pam on October 16th, 2022 1:14 pm

    Last year my Husband and l were lucky enough to witness a pair nesting at the end of our driveway, we spent t many weeks observing and yesterday heard the familiar sound looked up and yes they are back. Not sure if they use the same site to nest, dont think we would be that lucky. But really enjoy these birds.

  9. Shane on October 30th, 2022 2:39 pm

    I see them frequently in the Bentley, St James area. Just been watching and hearing their distinctive call (shrill) at Bentley 360 park.

  10. Shane Alford on October 30th, 2022 2:40 pm

    I see them frequently in the Bentley, St James area. Just been watching and hearing their distinctive call (shrill) at Bentley 360 park.

  11. Paul on November 22nd, 2022 2:17 pm

    2.15pm 22/11 22 seen in Melville WA

  12. Leanne on January 6th, 2023 12:00 pm

    I unfortunately destroyed a tunnel when digging in a mound of dirt in our yard in Shepparton North VIC. I discovered there were chicks in the nest so we put a piece of Poly pipe up to the nest and covered it over. Thankfully the adults are still here and using the replacement tunnel to feed the babies. They’re beautiful birds and I’ll be far more aware from now on.

  13. Scott Thompson on January 6th, 2023 1:48 pm

    Wow – I never knew that they would continue to use an artificial tunnel. Great initiative and well done

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