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Ch. 16: Humming-birds

Humming-birds are perhaps the very loveliest things in nature, and many
celebrated writers have exhausted their descriptive powers in vain
efforts to picture them to the imagination. The temptation was certainly
great, after describing the rich setting of tropical foliage and flower,
to speak at length of the wonderful gem contained within it; but they
would in this case have been wise to imitate that modest novel-writer
who introduced a blank space on the page where the description of his
matchless heroine should have appeared. After all that has been written,
the first sight of a living humming-bird, so unlike in its beauty all
other beautiful things, comes like a revelation to the mind. To give any
true conception of it by means of mere word-painting is not more
impossible than it would be to bottle up a supply of the "living
sunbeams" themselves, and convey them across the Atlantic to scatter
them in a sparkling shower over the face of England.

Doubtless many who have never seen them in a state of nature imagine
that a tolerably correct idea of their appearance can be gained from
Gould's colossal monograph. The pictures there, however, only represent
dead humming-birds. A dead robin is, for purposes of bird-portraiture,
as good as a live robin; the same may be said of even many
brilliant-plumaged species less aerial in their habits than
humming-birds. In butterflies the whole beauty is seldom seen until the
insect is dead, or, at any rate, captive. It was not when Wallace saw
the Ornithoptera croesus flying about, but only when he held it in his
hands, and opened its glorious wings, that the sight of its beauty
overcame him so powerfully. The special kind of beauty which makes the
first sight of a humming-bird a revelation depends on the swift singular
motions as much as on the intense gem-like and metallic brilliancy of
the plumage.

The minute exquisite form, when the bird hovers on misty wings, probing
the flowers with its coral spear, the fan-like tail expanded, and
poising motionless, exhibits the feathers shot with many hues; and the
next moment vanishes, or all but vanishes, then reappears at another
flower only to vanish again, and so on successively, showing its
splendours not continuously, but like the intermitted flashes of the
firefly--this forms a picture of airy grace and loveliness that baffles
description. All this glory disappears when the bird is dead, and even
when it alights to rest on a bough. Sitting still, it looks like an
exceedingly attenuated kingfisher, without the pretty plumage of that
bird, but retaining its stiff artificial manner. No artist has been so
bold as to attempt to depict the bird as it actually appears, when
balanced before a flower the swift motion of the wings obliterates their
form, making them seem like a mist encircling the body; yet it is
precisely this formless cloud on which the glittering body hangs
suspended, which contributes most to give the humming-bird its wonderful
sprite-like or extra-natural appearance. How strange, then, to find
bird-painters persisting in their efforts to show the humming-bird
flying! When they draw it stiff and upright on its perch the picture is
honest, if ugly; the more ambitious representation is a delusion and a

Coming to the actual colouring--the changeful tints that glow with such
intensity on the scale-like feathers, it is curious to find that Gould
seems to have thought that all difficulties here had been successfully
overcome. The "new process" he spoke so confidently about might no doubt
be used with advantage in reproducing the coarser metallic reflections
on a black plumage, such as we see in the corvine birds; but the
glittering garment of the humming-bird, like the silvery lace woven by
the Epeira, gemmed with dew and touched with rainbow-coloured light, has
never been and never can be imitated by art.

On this subject one of the latest observers of humming-birds, Mr.
Everard im Thurn, in his work on British Guiana, has the following
passage:--"Hardly more than one point of colour is in reality ever
visible in any one humming-bird at one and the same time, for each point
only shows its peculiar and glittering colour when the light falls upon
it from a particular direction. A true representation of one of these
birds would show it in somewhat sombre colours, except just at the one
point which, when the bird is in the position chosen for representation,
meets the light at the requisite angle, and that point alone should be
shown in full brilliance of colour. A flowery shrub is sometimes seen
surrounded by a cloud of humming-birds, all of one species, and each, of
course, in a different position. If someone would draw such a scene as
that, showing a different detail of colour in each bird, according to
its position, then some idea of the actual appearance of the bird might
be given to one who had never seen an example."

It is hardly to be expected that anyone will carry out the above
suggestion, and produce a monograph with pages ten or fifteen feet wide
by eighteen feet long, each one showing a cloud of humming-birds of one
species flitting about a flowery bush; but even in such a picture as
that would be, the birds, suspended on unlovely angular projections
instead of "hazy semicircles of indistinctness," and each with an
immovable fleck of brightness on the otherwise sombre plumage, would be
as unlike living humming-birds as anything in the older monographs.

Whether the glittering iridescent tints and singular ornaments for which
this family is famous result from the cumulative process of conscious or
voluntary sexual selection, as Darwin thought, or are merely the outcome
of a superabundant vitality, as Dr. A. R.. Wallace so strongly
maintains, is a question which science has not yet answered
satisfactorily. The tendency to or habit of varying in the direction of
rich colouring and beautiful or fantastic ornament, might, for all we
know to the contrary, have descended to humming-birds from some
diminutive, curiously-shaped, bright-tinted, flying reptile of arboreal
habits that lived in some far-off epoch in the world's history. It is
not, at all events, maintained by anyone that _all_ birds sprang
originally from one reptilian stock; and the true position of
humming-birds in a natural classification has not yet been settled, for
no intermediate forms exist connecting them with any other group, To the
ordinary mind they appear utterly unlike all other feathered creatures,
and as much entitled to stand apart as, for instance, the pigeon and
ostrich families. It has been maintained by some writers that they are
anatomically related to the swifts, although the differences separating
the two families appear so great as almost to stagger belief in this
notion. Now, however, the very latest authority on this subject, Dr.
Schufeldt, has come to the conclusion that swifts are only greatly
modified Passeres, and that the humming-birds should form an order by

Leaving this question, and regarding them simply with the ornithological
eye that does not see far below the surface of things, when we have
sufficiently admired the unique beauty and marvellous velocity of
humming-birds, there is little more to be said about them. They are
lovely to the eye--indescribably so; and it is not strange that Gould
wrote rapturously of the time when he was at length "permitted to revel
in the delight of seeing the humming-bird in a state of nature." The
feeling, he wrote, which animated him with regard to these most
wonderful works of creation it was impossible to describe, and could
only be appreciated by those who have made natural history a study, and
who "pursue the investigations of her charming mysteries with ardour and
delight." This we can understand; but to what an astonishing degree the
feeling was carried in him, when, after remarking that enthusiasm and
excitement with regard to most things in life become lessened and
eventually deadened by time in most of us, he was able to add, "not
so, however, I believe, with those who take up the study of the Family
of Humming-birds!" It can only be supposed that he regarded natural
history principally as a "science of dead animals--a _necrology_," and
collected humming-birds just as others collect Roman coins, birds' eggs,
old weapons, or blue china, their zeal in the pursuit and faith in its
importance increasing with the growth of their treasures, until they at
last come to believe that though all the enthusiasms and excitements
which give a zest to the lives of other men fade and perish with time,
it is not so with their particular pursuit. The more rational kind of
pleasure experienced by the ornithologist in studying habits and
disposition no doubt results in a great measure from the fact that the
actions of the feathered people have a savour of intelligence in them.
Whatever his theory or conviction about the origin of instincts may
happen to be, or even if he has no convictions on the subject, it must
nevertheless seem plain to him that intelligence is, after all, in most
cases, the guiding principle of life, supplementing and modifying habits
to bring them into closer harmony with the environment, and enlivening
every day with countless little acts which result from judgment and
experience, and form no part of the inherited complex instincts. The
longer he observes any one species or individual, the more does he find
in it to reward his attention; this is not the case, however, with
humming-birds, which possess the avian body but do not rank mentally
with birds. The pleasure one takes in their beauty soon evaporates, and
is succeeded by no fresh interest, so monotonous and mechanical are all
their actions; and we accordingly find that those who are most familiar
with them from personal observation have very little to say about them.
A score of hummingbirds, of as many distinct species, are less to the
student of habits than one little brown-plurnaged bird haunting his
garden or the rush-bed of a neighbouring stream; and, doubtless, for a
reason similar to that which makes a lovely human face uninformed by
intellect seem less permanently attractive than many a homelier
countenance. He grows tired of seeing the feathered fairies perpetually
weaving their aerial ballet-dance about the flowers, and finds it a
relief to watch the little finch or wren or flycatcher of shy temper and
obscure protective colouring. Perhaps it possesses a graceful form and
melodious voice to give it aesthetic value, but even without such
accessories he can observe it day by day with increasing interest and
pleasure; and it only adds piquancy to the feeling to know that the
little bird also watches him with a certain amount of intelligent
curiosity and a great deal of suspicion, and that it studiously
endeavours to conceal from him all the little secrets its life which he
is bent on discovering.

It has frequently been remarked that humming birds are more like insects
than birds in disposition. Some species, on quitting their perch,
perform wide bee-like circles about the tree before shooting away in a
straight line. Their aimless attacks on other species approaching or
passing near them, even on large birds like hawks and pigeons, is a
habit they have in common with many solitary wood-boring bees. They
also, like dragon-flies and other insects, attack each other when they
come together while feeding; and in this case their action strangely
resembles that of a couple of butterflies, as they revolve about each
other and rise vertically to a great height in the air. Again, like
insects, they are undisturbed at the presence of man while feeding, or
even when engaged in building and incubation; and like various solitary
bees, wasps, &c., they frequently come close to a person walking or
standing, to hover suspended in the air within a few inches of his face;
and if then struck at they often, insect-like, return to circle round
his head. All other birds, even those which display the least
versatility, and in districts where man is seldom seen, show as much
caution as curiosity in his presence; they recognize in the upright
unfamiliar form a living being and a possible enemy. Mr. Whiteley, who
observed humming-birds in Peru, says it is an amusing sight to watch the
Lesbia nuna attempting to pass to a distant spot in a straight line
during a high wind, which, acting on the long tail feathers, carries it
quite away from the point aimed at. Insects presenting a large surface
to the wind are always blown from their course in the same way, for even
in the most windy districts they never appear to learn to guide
themselves; and I have often seen a butterfly endeavouring to reach an
isolated flower blown from it a dozen times before it finally succeeded
or gave up the contest. Birds when shaping their course, unless young
and inexperienced, always make allowance for the force of the wind.
Humming-birds often fly into open rooms, impelled apparently by a
fearless curiosity, and may then be chased about until they drop
exhausted or are beaten down and caught, and, as Gould says, "if then
taken into the hand, they almost immediately feed on any sweet, or pump
up any liquid that may be offered to them, without betraying either fear
or resentment at the previous treatment." Wasps and bees taken in the
same way endeavour to sting their captor, as most people know from
experience, nor do they cease struggling violently to free themselves;
but the dragon-fly is like the humming-bird, and is no sooner caught
after much ill-treatment, than it will greedily devour as many flies and
mosquitoes as one likes to offer it. Only in beings very low in the
scale of nature do we see the instinct of self-preservation in this
extremely simple condition, unmixed with reason or feeling, and so
transient in its effects. The same insensibility to danger is seen when
humming-birds are captured and confined in a room, and when, before a
day is over, they will flutter about their captor's face and even take
nectar from his lips.

Some observers have thought that hummingbirds come nearest to
humble-bees in their actions. I do not think so. Mr. Bates writes: "They
do not proceed in that methodical manner which bees follow, taking the
flowers seriatim, but skip about from one part of a tree to another in
the most capricious manner." I have observed humble-bees a great deal,
and feel convinced that they arc among the most highly intelligent of
the social hymenoptera. Humming-birds, to my mind, have a much closer
resemblance to the solitary wood-boring bees and to dragon-flies. It
must also be borne in mind that insects have very little time in which
to acquire experience, and that a large portion of their life, in the
imago state, is taken up with the complex business of reproduction.

The Trochilidae, although confined to one continent, promise to exceed
all other families--even the cosmopolitan finches and warblers--in
number of species. At present over five hundred are known, or as many as
all the species of birds in Europe together; and good reasons exist for
believing that very many more--not less perhaps than one or two hundred
species--yet remain to be discovered. The most prolific region, and
where humming-birds are most highly developed, is known to be West
Brazil and the eastern slopes of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes. This
is precisely the least known portion of South America; the few
naturalists and collectors who have reached it have returned laden with
spoil, to tell us of a region surpassing all others in the
superabundance and beauty of its bird life. Nothing, however, which can
be said concerning these vast unexplored areas of tropical mountain and
forest so forcibly impresses us with the idea of the unknown riches
contained in them as the story of the Loddigesia mirabilis. This is
perhaps the most wonderful humming-bird known, and no one who had not
previously seen it figured could possibly form an idea of what it is
like from a mere description. An outline sketch of it would probably be
taken by most people as a fantastic design representing a bird-form in
combination with leaves, in size and shape resembling poplar leaves, but
on leaf-stalks of an impossible length, curving and crossing each other
so as to form geometrical figures unlike anything in nature. Yet this
bird (a single specimen) was obtained in Peru half a century ago, and
for upwards of twenty years after its discovery Gould tried to obtain
others, offering as much as fifty pounds for one; but no second specimen
ever gladdened his eyes, nor was anything more heard of it until
Stolzmann refound it in the year 1880.

The addition of many new species to the long list would, however, be a
matter of small interest, unless fresh facts concerning their habits and
structure were at the same time brought to light; but we can scarcely
expect that the as yet unknown species will supply any link connecting
the Trochilidae with other existing families of birds. The eventual
conclusion will perhaps be that this family has come down independently
from an exceedingly remote past, and with scarcely any modification.
While within certain very narrow limits humming-birds vary more than
other families, outside of these limits they appear relatively
stationary; and, conversely, other birds exhibit least variability in
the one direction in which humming-birds vary excessively. On account of
a trivial difference in habit they have sometimes been separated in two
sub-families: the Phaethornithinae, found in shady tropical forests; and
the Trochilinae, comprising humming-birds which inhabit open sunny
places--and to this division they mostly belong. In both of these purely
arbitrary groups, however, the aerial habits and manner of feeding
poised in the air are identical, although the birds living in shady
forests, where flowers are scarce, obtain their food principally from
the under surfaces of leaves. In their procreant habits the uniformity
is also very great. In all cases the nest is small, deep, cup-shaped, or
conical, composed of soft felted materials, and lined inside with
vegetable down. The eggs are white, and never exceed two in number.
Broadly speaking, they resemble each other as closely in habits as in
structure; the greatest differences in habit in the most widely
separated genera being no greater than may be found in two wrens or
sparrows of the same genus.

This persistence of character in humming-birds, both as regards
structure and habit, seems the more remarkable when we consider their
very wide distribution over a continent so varied in its conditions, and
where they range from the lowest levels to the limit of perpetual snow
on the Andes, and from the tropics to the wintry Magellanic district;
also that a majority of genera inhabit very circumscribed areas--these
facts, as Dr. Wallace remarks, clearly pointing to a very high

It is perhaps a law of nature that when a species (or group) fits itself
to a place not previously occupied, and in which it is subject to no
opposition from beings of its own class, or where it attains so great a
perfection as to be able easily to overcome all opposition, the
character eventually loses its original plasticity, or tendency to vary,
since improvement in such a case would be superfluous, and becomes, so
to speak, crystallized in that form which continues thereafter
unaltered. It is, at any rate, clear that while all other birds rub
together in the struggle for existence, the humming-bird, owing to its
aerial life and peculiar manner of seeking its food, is absolutely
untouched by this kind of warfare, and is accordingly as far removed
from all competition with other birds as the solitary savage is removed
from the struggle of life affecting and modifying men in crowded
communities. The lower kind of competition affecting hummingbirds, that
with insects and, within the family, of species with species, has
probably only served to intensify their unique characteristics, and,
perhaps, to lower their intelligence.

Not only are they removed from that indirect struggle for existence
which acts so powerfully on other families, but they are also, by their
habits and the unequalled velocity of their flight, placed out of reach
of that direct war waged on all other small birds by the rapacious
kinds--birds, mammals, and reptiles. One result of this immunity is that
humming-birds are excessively numerous, albeit such slow breeders; for,
as we have seen, they only lay two eggs, and not only so, but the second
egg is often dropped so long after incubation has begun in the first
that only one is really hatched. Yet Belt expressed the opinion that in
Nicaragua, where he observed humming-birds, they out-numbered all the
other birds together. Considering how abundant birds of all kinds are in
that district, and that most of them have a protective colouring and lay
several eggs, it would be impossible to accept such a statement unless
we believed that humming-birds have, practically, no enemies.

Another result of their immunity from persecution is the splendid
colouring and strange and beautiful feather ornaments distinguishing
them above all other birds; and excessive variation in this direction is
due, it seems to me, to the very causes which serve to check variation
in all other directions. In their plumage, as Martin long ago wrote,
nature has strained at every variety of effect and revelled in an
infinitude of modifications. How wonderful their garb is, with colours
so varied, so intense, yet seemingly so evanescent!--the glittering
mantle of powdered gold; the emerald green that changes to velvet black;
ruby reds and luminous scarlets; dull bronze that brightens and burns
like polished brass, and pale neutral tints that kindle to rose and
lilac-coloured flame. And to the glory of prismatic colouring are added
feather decorations, such as the racket-plumes and downy muffs of
Spathura, the crest and frills of Lophornis, the sapphire gorget burning
on the snow-white breast of Oreotrochilus, the fiery tail of Cometes,
and, amongst grotesque forms, the long pointed crest-feathers,
representing horns, and flowing-white beard adorning the piebald
goat-like face of Oxypogon.

Excessive variation in this direction is checked in nearly all other
birds by the need of a protective colouring, few kinds so greatly
excelling in strength and activity as to be able to maintain their
existence without it. Bright feathers constitute a double danger, for
not only do they render their possessor conspicuous, but, just as the
butterfly chooses the gayest flower, so do hawks deliberately single out
from many obscure birds the one with brilliant plumage; but the
rapacious kinds do not waste their energies in the vain pursuit of
hummingbirds. These are in the position of neutrals, free to range at
will amidst the combatants, insulting all alike, and flaunting their
splendid colours with impunity. They are nature's favourites, endowed
with faculties bordering on the miraculous, and all other kinds, gentle
or fierce, ask only to be left alone by them.

W. H. Hudson