Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/July 1874/Humming-Birds

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THE discovery of America opened up to the civilized world many new objects of interest in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Not the least in interest was the discovery of an extensive group of birds, consisting of several hundred species, whose diminutive size, quickness of motion, boldness of demeanor, elegance of form, and exquisite beauty of plumage, attracted the attention and secured the admiration of every lover of Nature.

The larger portion of these birds live in the West Indies and the tropical regions of America. Some occupy only a small island or district; others, a narrow belt on the side of a mountain: most do not extend their limits beyond a few degrees of latitude, while a few are migratory, and spend the summer in the temperate zone, but return to the tropical regions for the winter. Their food consists of honey and insects; and, consequently, they must live where flowers grow and insects abound. The Indians gave to these interesting little creatures fanciful names that expressed the idea of sunbeams, sun-angels, sun-gems, tresses of the day-star, murmuring-birds, and the like. And naturalists have given to them names equally fanciful, expressing the same or similar ideas, such as brilliant birds, light-bearers, sun-seekers, flower-kissers, honey-suckers, living meteors, and many others of similar meaning. They derive their common name from the buzzing or humming sound which they make with their wings. These vibrate so quickly as to be visible only as a semicircular film on each side of the body. The sound made by different species varies with the velocity of their wings. That made by the vervain humming-bird resembles the sound of a large bee; while that made by the polytmus resembles the sound of a swiftly-revolving wheel.

One of the peculiarities which first strikes a stranger, upon seeing one of these brilliant breathing gems, is the immense power of wing, shown by the quickness of his flight, also by the ease with which he balances himself in the air, whether, foraging unmolested, he is feeding at the flowers, or, attracted by curiosity, he is surveying one's person. He comes so suddenly as to give no warning to the eye; we hear a buzz, see the bird near us stationary, his form distinct, and when he leaves, so quick and sudden is his flight, that the eye can scarcely trace his pathway. The muscles of his wings are more powerful and active, in proportion to his size, than those of any other bird, and the wings are very long and sharp. For this reason he can easily hover, apparently motionless, for any length of time, before a flower whose honey he wishes to obtain. He thus sips the nectar of one flower after another for hours in succession, without showing any signs of weariness, or disturbing in the least the most delicate blossom.

Fig. 1.

Ruby-throated Humming-bird (Trochilus colubris), common in the Unites States.

If any one wishes to observe these birds and their habits, let him, on a fine, pleasant morning, visit a cluster of gooseberry bushes when in bloom, of whose honey they are exceedingly fond, and he will probably find one or more of them quietly searching the flowers for food. If disturbed, he will frequently rise to a considerable height in an oblique direction, then dart down, almost with the velocity of a bullet, past the place of annoyance, and rise on the opposite side to an equal height; then return by reversing his course, and so repeat these sweeping movements, till he sufficiently expresses his disapprobation, drives away his adversary, or retires in disgust.

If two birds foraging come together, they usually fight; one drives the other away, and then goes on feeding as if nothing had happened. Mr. Gosse says: "If two vervain humming-birds are about the moringa-tree, one will fly off and suspend himself in the air a few yards distant, the other presently shoots off" to him; and then, without touching each other, they mount upward with strong, rushing wings, perhaps for 500 feet. They then separate, and each shoots diagonally toward the ground, like a ball from a rifle, and, wheeling round, comes up to the blossoms again, and sucks, as if it had not moved away at all. The figure of the smaller humming-birds on the wing, their rapidity, their arrowy course, and their whole manner of flight, are entirely those of an insect: and one, who has watched the flight of a large beetle, or bee, will have a very good idea of one of these tropic gems, painted against the sky." Again he says: "I once witnessed a combat between two mango humming-birds, which was prosecuted with much pertinacity, and protracted to an unusual length. They chased each other through the labyrinth of twigs and flowers till, an opportunity occurring, the one would dart with fury upon the other, and then, with a loud rustling of their wings, they would twirl together round and round, until they nearly came to earth. At length an encounter took place pretty close to me, and I perceived that the beak of the one grasped the beak of the other, and, thus fastened, both whirled round and round in their perpendicular descent, till, when very near the ground, they separated; and the one chased the other for about a hundred yards, and then returned in triumph to the tree.

Fig. 2.

Mango Humming-bird (Lampornis mango).—1. Male; 2. Female.

Sometimes they would suspend hostilities to suck a few blossoms, but mutual proximity was sure to bring them on again, with the same result. In their tortuous and rapid evolutions, the light from their ruby necks would now and then flash in the sun with gem-like radiance. The war lasted fully an hour, and then I was called away from the post of observation."

When these birds have nests, they defend them with great energy. They will attack and drive away any bird, however large, that disturbs them, or encroaches upon their territories. Wood says: "It has even been seen to attack the royal eagle itself, and to perch itself upon the head of its gigantic enemy, pecking away with hearty good-will, and scattering the eagle's feathers in a stream, as the affrighted bird dashed screaming through the air, vainly attempting to rid itself of its puny foe." If a person comes near their nest, they will frequently hover very near, and scrutinize him with great deliberation and coolness. We learn from Humboldt, that, "according to the religious belief of the Mexicans, Torgamiqui, the spouse of the god of war, conducted the souls of those warriors who had died in the defense of the gods into the mansions of the sun, and there transformed them into humming-birds—an idea exquisitely spiritual, but perhaps only to be appreciated by those who have seen these birds gleaming like meteors, or shooting-stars, in their native regions."

All these birds are very small. The vervain humming-bird, of Jamaica, is one of the minutest of those at present known. Its body is less than an inch and a half long; its tail, less than an inch; and its total length less than three inches. Most are a little larger, and have longer tails. The largest bird in the family is the gigantic humming-bird of Chili, well proportioned, and nearly eight inches in length.

More than three hundred different species of humming-birds, or Trochilidæ, as the family is called, have been minutely described, and specimens carefully prepared and preserved. Many more species are supposed to exist in Mexico, and in the wilds of Central and South America. The family is divided, by Wood, into twenty-eight genera. While the earlier writers made a less number of divisions, some of the later European naturalists have made a much greater number: in one instance, no less than seventy-six genera and sub-genera. The extent of the family will be apparent when we consider that "the total number of the birds of Europe, of every order or group, amounts to no more than 503 species," while there are probably between 400 and 500 species of humming-birds that are included in this one family.[1]

Their bills are all very slender and sharp. Most of them are long; some are straight; many are curved downward; and a few are curved upward. They all appear to be adapted to the kind of flowers from which the birds obtain their food. Their tongue is a slender sucking-tube, and capable of being thrust out a long distance. It appears as though composed of two minute muscular tubes, lined within by two partial tubes of a substance resembling parchment, laid side by side, and joined together for about half of their length, but separate toward the tip, near which each partial tube becomes less curved, and apparently widened, then tapers to a point, the upper edge being irregularly notched or slit, the barbs pointing backward. The tongue is constantly moistened by a glutinous saliva, by means of which it is enabled to seize and hold insects. Says Martin: "It is by a pumping or sucking action, as we have every reason to believe, that nectar or fluids are absorbed by the tubular tongue of these birds. In no other vertebrate animals, as far as we know, is the tongue constructed as a tubular sucking-pump: so far, the humming-birds stand alone; and this circumstance in itself, considering it with reference to organic structure, might be adduced as a reason for regarding these birds as a distinct order."

Mr. Thomas Belt, author of "The Naturalist in Nicaragua," indicates another function performed by the curious cleft tongue of the humming-bird, viz., the capture of insects. As we have seen, this organ is, for one-half its length, made up of a substance like rather stiff parchment, or horn, and split in two. When at rest, the two

Fig. 3.

Tongue of Humming-bird, with Blades a little opened.

halves are laid flat against each other, but they can be separated at the will of the bird, and form a pair of forceps, admirably adapted for picking out minute insects from among the stamens of flowers.

We may admire the elegance of form and the quickness of motion of these birds, but the dazzling splendor of their plumage, resembling that of burnished metal or polished gems, changing with every change of position, has a charm for the dullest observer, and a fascination for the more sensitive. The wonderful change in color that takes place, according to the position of the light, from brilliant green, through the brightest golden tints, to intense velvety-black, or from black to emerald, or ruby, or crimson, or flame-color, reminds one of fairy-land, or the tales of the genii. Where a metallic lustre prevails, the plumage is always composed of feathers so shaped as to appear to have the form of scales. The birds vary in respect to the parts that have these feathers. While most have them on the throat, many have them on the breast and head; others have them also on the back; some have them on the wing-coverts or tail; and a few have them on nearly all parts, except the long wing-feathers, which are generally of a purplish-brown. It may here be asked, What causes the gorgeous metallic lustre of their plumage, and the rich, changing tints of the various colors, representing every hue of the rainbow, purple, amethyst, fiery crimson, brilliant ruby, radiant topaz, emerald green, resplendent blue, and glossy violet, which, in certain lights, often gleam with a refulgence that almost dazzles the eye? They have been attributed to various causes; but it appears to be the condition of the surface of the feathers that produces the iridescence. The surface is striated, or has minute furrows, like the nacre, or mother-of-pearl of the Haliotis, and other sea-shells, which decompose the light—absorbing part, and reflecting part; and the color of the reflected light depends upon the angle of the incident ray to the surface, and varies as the angle varies. In one direction of the incident ray, the light will be wholly absorbed, and, none being reflected, the surface will appear intensely black. It will readily be perceived that every movement of the bird produces more or less a change of color. Even the heaving of the breast, in breathing, sometimes produces perceptible changes.

The nests of humming-birds are curiously, skillfully, and quickly made. Most of them are formed of the down of the gigantic silk-cotton tree, or other vegetable fibres, worked into a sort of wadding or felt, and covered on the outside with particles of lichen, moss, webs of spiders, etc., the saliva of the bird being used to assist in holding the parts together. They are generally cup-shaped, or conical. Martin says: "In position, these nests are as different as imagination can conceive. Some are attached to the fork of a branch; others are bound to a waving twig enshrouded by foliage; others are pendent, attached to the extremity of the leaves of palms, flags, and other plants, overhanging water; others, again, build on rocks, hanging their nests by filaments to the sides of bold precipices; others hang their nests to the extremity of slender, pendent tendrils. Their eggs are two in number, white, but often, from their transparency, they display the color of the yolk, the shell appearing as if tinged with a blush of orange-red or pink. The eggs are a long oval, measuring, on the average, from three-eighths to one-half of an inch in length." Captain Lyon, writing from Gongo Soco, Brazil, says: "It may interest you to have an account of some young humming-birds, whose hatching and education I studiously attended, as the nest was made in a little orange-bush, by the side of a frequented walk, in my garden. It was composed of the silky down of a plant, and covered with small, flat pieces of yellow lichen. The first egg was laid January 26th, the second on the 28th, and two little creatures, like bees, made their appearance on the morning of February 14th. The old bird sat very close during the continuance of the heavy rain for several days and nights. The young remained blind until February 28th, and flew on the morning of March 7th, without previous practice, as strong and swiftly as the mother, taking their first start from the nest to a tree about twenty yards distant." The intense activity of humming-birds makes it necessary for them to have food containing nitrogen, which they get by feeding on insects. Honey furnishes proper food, or fuel, for the lungs, but it alone cannot form muscle, or give strength. They resemble the swifts in their powers of flight; the woodpeckers, in their means for darting out the tongue; and the sunbirds, in the metallic lustre of their plumage.

The ruby and topaz, or ruby-crested, humming-bird (Chrysolampis moschitus, Boié) derives its common name "from the color of its head and throat, the former being of a deep ruby tint, and the latter of a resplendent topaz." Chrysolampis, or gold-gleaming, is also very expressive of its appearance. On the head of the male bird, the feathers are elongated, and form a short, rounded crest, which can be raised or lowered at pleasure. The crest and upper part of the head appear of the most brilliant ruby-red, of a bright coppery lustre, or of a deep, sombre reddish-brown, according to the direction of the light and the observer. The throat and breast appear of the most brilliant topaz-yellow,

Fig. 4.

Nest of Ruby and Topaz Humming-bird.

of a clear golden-green, or of a sombre greenish-brown, under similar circumstances. Jardine says: "It is impossible to convey by words the idea of these tints; and, having mentioned those substances to which they approach nearest, imagination must be left to conceive the rest." The upper parts of the body are velvety bronze-brown, the tail-coverts having a greenish tinge, and the wings are purple-brown. The broad and expansive tail is of a "rich chestnut-red, tipped with black, and the abdomen is of a dark olive-brown. The female has none of the ruby patches on the head, but retains a little of the topaz on the throat."

This species lives in the West Indies, and in various parts of South America. "It is in great request for the dealers, and thousands are killed annually. No species is so common as this in ornamental cases of humming-birds." Humming-birds are not only used for cabinet-specimens, but for various purposes of embellishment. The feathers are used to make flowers, pictures, and other ornaments. The birds are killed in various ways. Some are shot; but they are frequently so injured by this method as to be of little value. By the use of the sarbacane or shooting-tube, they can be stunned and taken without much injury. They are sometimes caught in nets uninjured; and occasionally they are taken by putting bird-lime, or other glutinous substance, in flowers which they habitually visit.

The nest of this species is formed almost entirely of cotton or fine grass, and is thick, compact, and warm, the inside being about an inch in diameter, and the same in depth. It is frequently attached to a leaf, put on the small branches of a rush, or built on the twig of a small bush. Mr. Kirk, residing in the island of Tobago, says: "The ruby-crested humming-birds make their appearance here on the 1st of February. They begin to make their nests about the 10th. I now know (March 1st) of several containing two eggs each; and watched a bird building one yesterday for nearly an hour. Her manner of construction was very ingenious: bringing a pile of small grass or lichen, she commenced upon a small twig about a quarter of an inch in diameter, immediately below a large leaf, which entirely covers and conceals the nest from above, the height from the ground being about three feet. After the nest had received two or three of these grasses, she set herself in the centre, and, putting her long, slender beak over the outer edge, seemed to use it and her throat much in the same way as a mason does his trowel, for the purpose of smoothing, rubbing to and fro, and sweeping quite around. Each visit to the nest seemed to occupy only a couple of seconds, and her absence from it not more than two minutes. A few hours after I saw the nest, which had all the appearance of a finished one."

The sappho comet, or bar-tailed humming-bird (Cometes sparganurus, Gould), is remarkable for the development and splendid color of the tail of the male bird. The feathers are broad and truncate, and the outer pair five or six inches long, the others decreasing rapidly toward the inner ones. They are of a brilliant reddish orange, with a metallic lustre of the greatest clearness, assuming a greater tinge of red or yellow, according to the direction of the light. The tail is darker at the base and of a lighter or more fiery red toward the extremity. The tip of each feather has a broad black bar, and when the tail is closed these tips appear as five black bars or bands. The upper parts of the head, neck, and body, are of a golden green; the rump, of a fine madder-red without lustre; the sides of the face and neck are bronzed; wings, purple-brown; the throat and breast are of a bright emerald-green, with very brilliant metallic lustre; the abdomen, darker green. The female is smaller than the male, and has a shorter tail, and less brilliant color.

This species is a native of Bolivia, but spends the winter in Eastern Peru. It migrates southward to Bolivia in September or October, the spring of their year, raises its young, and, after spending the summer, returns northward with them in March or April, their autumn, to Eastern Peru. It is a remarkably familiar bird, for it not only feeds

Fig. 5.

Sappho Comet.

upon the flowers of the forest-trees, but visits the orchards when in bloom, the cottage shrubbery, the gardens, and the cultivated fields of maize, pulse, and other leguminous plants. It obtains an abundant supply of insect-food from the rich flowers of the cactus family. Mr. Bonelli says: "The difficulty of shooting these birds is inconceivably great, from the extraordinary turns and evolutions they make when on the wing; at one instant darting headlong into a flower; at the next, describing a circle in the air with such rapidity that the eye, to follow the movement, loses sight of it, until it again returns to the flower which at first attracted its attention."

The ruby-throated, or northern, humming-bird (Trochilus coluhris, Linnæus) is so called, says Wood, "on account of the glowing, metallic feathers that blaze with ruby lustre upon its throat, and gleam in the sunshine like plumes of living fire. The general color of its upper surface and the two central tail-feathers is light, shining green, glazed with gold. The under parts of the body are grayish-white intermingled with green; and the throat is of the most gorgeous ruby carmine" tint, which changes, with the change of light, to a fiery crimson, to a burning orange, or to the deepest velvety black. The wings and eight tail-feathers are purplish-brown. The throat of the female is white.

The ruby-throats arrive in Louisiana and Florida in the first part of March, and, gradually proceeding north as the weather grows warm, arrive in Pennsylvania in the latter part of April, and in New York and Canada in May. They generally build their nests two or three weeks after their arrival. They usually place them a few feet from the ground, on an almost level branch of some tree, as the white-oak or pear tree, and extend the bottom of the nest round the limb so as to inclose it and appear as a mere mossy knot, or natural enlargement. Audubon says: "The nest of this humming-bird is of the most delicate nature, the external parts being formed of a light-gray lichen, found on the branches of trees or on decayed fence-rails, and so neatly arranged round the whole nest, as well as to some distance from the spot where it is attached, as to seem part of the branch or stem itself. These little pieces of lichen are glued together by the saliva of the bird. The next coating consists of cottony substances, and the innermost, of silky fibres, obtained from various plants, all extremely delicate and soft. On this comfortable bed, as if in contradiction to the axiom that the smaller the species the greater the number of eggs, the female lays only two, which are pure white, and almost oval. Ten days are required for their hatching; and the birds raise two broods in a season. In one week the young are ready to fly; but are fed by the parents for nearly another week. They receive their food directly from the bill of their parents, who disgorge it in the manner of canaries and pigeons." They probably join the young of other broods, and migrate without the old ones. They no not receive their full brilliancy till the next spring. When caught in a gauze net they easily die, or simulate death.

The ruby-throat has sometimes been tamed. Mr. Webber, in his "Wild Scenes and Song Birds," says, after several unsuccessful attempts, at last "I succeeded in securing an uninjured captive, which, to my inexpressible delight, proved to be one of the ruby-throated species, the most splendid and diminutive, that comes north of Florida. It immediately suggested itself to me that a mixture of two parts of loaf-sugar, with one of fine honey, in ten of water, would make about the nearest approach to the nectar of flowers. While my sister ran to prepare it, I gradually opened my hand to look at my prisoner, and saw to my no little amusement as well as suspicion, that it was actually 'playing possum'—feigning to be dead, most skillfully. It lay on my open palm motionless for some minutes, during which I watched it in breathless curiosity. I saw it gradually open its bright little eyes to peep whether the way was clear, and then close them slowly as it caught my eye upon it. But when the manufactured nectar came, and a drop was touched upon the point of its bill, it came to life very suddenly, and, in a moment, was on its legs, drinking with eager gusto of the refreshing draught, from a silver teaspoon. When sated it refused to take any more, and sat perched with the coolest self-composure on my finger, and plumed itself quite as artistically as if on its favorite spray. I was enchanted with the bold, innocent confidence with which it turned up its keen black eyes to survey us, as much as to say, 'Well, good folks! who are you?' By the next day it would come from any part of either room, alight upon the side of a white China cup containing the mixture, and drink eagerly, with its long bill thrust into the very base. It would alight on my fingers, and seem to talk with us endearingly in its soft chirps." Mr. Webber afterward succeeded in taming several of the same species. He gave them their liberty occasionally, and they returned regularly. At the time for migration they left for the winter; but, the next spring, they sought their old quarters, and accepted the delicious nectar kindly provided for them, and by degrees brought their mates. "He frequently observed, while watching for their nest, that the ruby-throats, after leaving their station, shot suddenly and perpendicularly in the air until they became invisible. At last, he had the great satisfaction of seeing the female bird fall, like a fiery aërolite from the sky, upon the spot where she had built her nest." From this he inferred that, instinctively for concealment, such was their usual practice.

The ruby-throats generally prefer tubular flowers, such as those of the thorn-apple, trumpet-flower, honeysuckle, etc., though, in case of need, they appear not to reject any one that will furnish them food. But there is nothing that will attract them so effectually, under all circumstances, as a large cluster of gooseberry-bushes in full bloom. And any one having such a cluster, and a little leisure, can at the proper season have the opportunity of observing their beauty and studying their habits. And this is very desirable and satisfactory to an inquisitive mind; for words, engravings, paintings, and even cabinet specimens, fail to give a true and full impression of the vivid and changeful tints, like the flashings of the ruby, the topaz, and the emerald, that proceed from these exquisitely beautiful winged gems.

  1. On the upper floor of the old Arsenal, in Central Park, New York City, at Sixty-fourth Street, there is a collection of several hundred prepared specimens of hummingbirds, illustrating the great number and variety of species, and the extreme brilliancy and beauty of their plumage. This collection furnishes an opportunity, to any one who has the taste and leisure, to study this minute but interesting portion of natural history.