1902 Encyclopedia > Humming Bird

Humming Bird




HUMMING-BIRD, a name in use for more than two centuries, and possibly ever since English explorers first knew of the beautiful little animals to which, from the sound occasionally made by the rapid vibrations of their wings, it is applied. Among books that are ordinarily in natu-ralists' hands, the name seems to be first found in the Mnsceum Tradescantianum, published in 1656, but it therein occurs (p. 3) so as to suggest its having already been accepted and commonly understood; and its earliest use, as yet discovered, is said to be by Thomas Morton in the New English Canaan, printed in 1632—a rare work reproduced by Peter Force in his Historical Tracts (vol. ii., Washington, 1838). Thevet, in his Singularitez de la France antarctique (Antwerp, 1558, fol. 92), has been more than once cited as the earliest author to mention Humming-birds, which he did under the name of Gouambuch; but it is quite certain that Oviedo, whose Hystoria general de las Indias was published at Toledo in 1525, preceded him by more than thirty years, with an account of the " paxaro mosquito " of Hispaniola, of which island "the first chronicler of the Indies" was governor. This name, though now apparently disused in Spanish, must have been current about that time, for we find Gesner in 1555 (De avium natura, iii. p. 629) translating it literally into Latin as Passer muscatus, owing, as he says, his know-ledge of the bird to Cardan, the celebrated mathematician, astrologer, and physician, from whom we learn (Comment.
in Ptolem. de astr. judiciis, Basel, 1554, p. 472) that, on his return to Milan from professionally attending Arch-bishop Hamilton at Edinburgh, he visited Gesner at Zurich, ¡ about the end of the year 1552. The name still survives \ in the French

Oiseau-mouche; but the ordinary Spanish I appellation is, and long has been, Tominejo, from tomin, j signifying a weight equal to the third part of an adarme or drachm, and used metaphorically for anything very small. Humming-birds, however, are called by a variety of other names, many of them derived from American languages, such as Guainumbi, Ourissia, and Colibrí, to say nothing of others bestowed upon them (chiefly from some peculiarity of habit) by Europeans, like Picaflores, Chuparosa, and Froufrou. Barreré, in 1745, conceiving that Humming-birds were allied to the Wren, the Trochilus,s in part, of Pliny, applied that name in a generic sense (Ornith. Sp>ec. novum, pp. 47, 48) to both. Taking the hint thus afforded, Linnaeus very soon after went further, and, excluding the Wrens, founded his genus Trochihis for the reception of such Humming-birds as were known to him. The unfortunate act of the great nomenclátor cannot be set aside; and, since his time, ornithologists with but few exceptions have followed his example, so that now-a-days Humming-birds are universally recognized as forming the Family Trochilidoe.
sense Aristotle (Hist. Animalium, ix. 6) also uses it. But the received text of Aristotle has two other passages (ix. 1 and 11) wherein the word appears in a wholly different connexion, and can there be only taken to mean the Wren—the usual Greek name of which would seem to be ÓpXiA.os (Sundevall, Om Aristotl. Djurarter, No. 54). Thou?1-none of his editors or commentators have suggested the possibility of such a thing, one can hardly help suspecting that in these passages some early copyist has substituted i-po^ÍAos for ípx^os, and so laid the foundation of a curious error. It may be here remarked that the Crocodile of St Domingo is said to have the like office done for it by some kind of bird, which is called by Descourtilz (Voyage, iii. p. 26), a " Todier," but, as Geoffr. St Hilaire observes (Descr. de VEgypte, ed. 2, xxiv. p. 440), is more probably a Plover. Unfortunately the fauna of Hispaniola is not much better known now than in Oviedo's days.
The relations of the Trochilidoe to other birds were for a,long while very imperfectly understood. Nitzsch first drew attention to their agreement in many essential characters with the Swifts, Cypselidce, and placed the two Families in one group, which he called Macrochires, from the great [ length of their manual bones, or those forming the extremity I of the wing. The name was perhaps not very happily ' chosen, for it is not the distal portion that is so much out : of ordinary proportion to the size of the bird, but the proximal and median portions, that in both Families are curiously dwarfed. Still the mantis, in comparison with the other parts of the wing, is so long that the term Macrochires is not wholly inaccurate. The affinity of the Trochi-lidce and Cypselidce, once pointed out, became obvious to every careful and unprejudiced investigator, and there are probably few systematists now living who refuse to admit its validity. More than this, it is confirmed by an examination of other osteological characters. The " lines," as a boat-builder would say, upon which the skeleton of each form is constructed are precisely similar, only that whereas the bill is very short and the head wide in the Swifts, in the Humming-birds the head is narrow and the bill long-— the latter developed to an extraordinary degree in some oí the Trochilidoe, rendering them the longest-billed birds known. Professor Huxley considers these two Families,

together with the Goatsuckers (Caprimulgidce), to form the divisionCypselomorphce—one of the two into which he has separated his larger group jEgithognathcv. However, the most noticeable portion of the Humming-bird's skeleton is the sternum, which in proportion to the size of the bird is enormously developed both longitudinally and vertically, its deep keel and posterior protraction affording abundant space for the powerful muscles which drive the wings in their rapid vibrations as the little creature poises itself over the flowers where it finds its food.
So far as is known, all Humming-birds possess a protru-sible tongue, in conformation peculiar among the class Aves, though to some extent similar to that member in the Woodpeckers (Picidce) —the "horns" of the hyoid apparatus upon which it is seated being greatly elongated, passing round and over the back part of the head, near the top of which they meet, and thence proceed forward, lodged in a broad and deep groove, till they terminate in front of the eyes. But, unlike the tongue of the Woodpeckers, that of the i Humming-birds consists of two cylindrical tubes, tapering towards the point, and forming two sheaths which contain the extensile portion, and are capable of separation, thereby facilitating the extraction of honey from the nectaries ! of flowers, and with it, what is of far greater importance for the bird's sustenance, the small insects that have been attracted to feed upon the honey. These, on the tongue being withdrawn into the bill, are caught by the mandibles (furnished in the males of many species with fine, horny, saw-like teeth ), and swallowed in the usual way. The stomach is small, moderately muscular, and with the inner coat slightly hardened. There seem to be no caeca. The trachea is remarkably short, the bronchi beginning high up on the throat, and song-muscles are wholly wanting, as in all other Cypselomorphce.
such as the well-known Aithurus polytmus of Jamaica, and the re-
was until lately only known from a unique specimen (Ibis, 1880, p.
Humming-birds, as is well known, comprehend the smallest members of the class Aves. The largest among them measures no more than 8 inches and a half, and the least 2 inches and three-eighths in length, for it is now admitted generally that Sloane must have been in error when he described (Voyage, ii. p. 308) the " Least Humming-bird of Jamaica" as "about \ \ inch long from the end of the bill to that of the tail"—unless, indeed, he meant the proximal end of each, an interpretation, however, that will not saveEdwards and Latham from the charge of careless misstatement, when they declare that they had received such a bird from that island. Next to their generally small size, the best known characteristic of the Trochilidce is the wonderful brilliancy of the plumage of nearly all their forms, in which respect they are surpassed by no other birds, and are only equalled by a few, as, for instance, by the Nectariniidce, or Sun-birds of the tropical parts of the Old World, in popular estimation so often confounded with them, and even by some mistaken naturalists thought to be their allies.
The number of species of Humming-birds now known to exist considerably exceeds 400 ; and, though none depart very widely from what a morphologist would deem the typical structure of the Family, the amount of modification, within certain limits, presented by the various forms is surprising and even bewildering to the un-initiated. But the features that are ordinarily chosen by systematic ornithologists in drawing up their schemes of classification are found by the " trochilidists," or special students of the Trochilidce, insuf-ficient for the purpose of arranging these birds in groups, and char-acters on which genera can be founded have to be sought in the style and coloration of plumage, as well as in the form and propor-tions of those parts which are most generally deemed sufficient to-furnish them. Looking to the large number of species to be taken into account, convenience has demanded what science would with-hold, and the genera established by the ornithologists of a preced-ing generation have been broken up by their successors into multi-tudinous sections—the more adventurous making from 150 to 180 of such groups, the modest being content with 120 or thereabouts, but the last dignifying each of them by the title of genus. It is of course obvious that these small divisions cannot be here considered in detail, nor would much advantage accrue by giving statistics from the works of the latest trochilidists, Messrs Gould/Mulsant, and Elliot. ' ft would be as unprofitable here to trace the successive steps by which the original genus Trochilus of Linnams, or the two genera Polytmus and Mellisuga of Brisson, have been split into others, or have been added to, by modern writers, for not one of these professes to have arrived at any final, but only a provisional, arrange-ment ; it seems, however, expedient to notice the fact that some of the authors of the last century supposed themselves to have seen the way to dividing what we now know as the Family Trochilidce into two groups, the distinction between which was that in the one the bill was arched and in the other straight, since that difference has been insisted on in many works. This was especially the view taken by Brisson and Buffon, who termed the birds having the arched bill "C'olibris," and those having it straight " Oiseaux-mouches." The distinction wholly breaks down, not merely because there are Trochilidce which possess almost every gradation of decurvation of the bill, but some which have the bill upturned after the manner of that strange bird the Avocet, while it may be remarked that several of the species placed by those authorities anting the " Coli-bris" are not Humming-birds at all.
7 A Monograph of the Trochilidce or Humming-birds, 5 vols. imp. fol., London, 1861 (with Introduction in 8vo).
8 Histoire naturelle des Oiseaux-M ouches ou C'olibris, 4 vols, with supplement, imp. 4to, Lyon-Geneve-Bale, 1874-77.
* Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, No. 317, A Classification and Synopsis of the Trochilidce, 1 vol. imp. 4to, Washington, 1879.
10 Salerne must be excepted, especially as he was rebuked by Buffon
for doing what we now deem right.
11 For example A vocettula recurvirostris of Guiana and A. euryptera,
of Colombia.
The extraordinarily brilliant plumage which most oi the Trochi-lidce exhibit has been already mentioned, and in describing it orni-thologists have been compelled to adopt the vocabulary of the jeweller in order to give an idea of the indescribable radiance that so often breaks forth from some part or other of the investments of these feathered gems. In all save a few of other birds, the most imaginative writer sees gleams which he may adequately designate metallic, from their resemblance to burnished gold, bronze, copper, or steel, but such similitudes wholly fail when he has to do with the Trochilidce, and there is hardly a precious stone—ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald, or topaz—the name of which may not fitly, and I without any exaggeration, be employed in regard to Humming-birds. I In some cases this radiance beams from the brow, in some it glows ; from the throat, in others it shines from the tail-coverts, in others it sparkles from the tip only of elongated feathers that crest the \ head or surround the neck as with a frill, while again in others it may appear as a luminous streak across the cheek or auriculars. The feathers

and so to indigo and bottle-green. But this part of the Humming-bird is subject to quite as much modification in form as in colour, though always consisting of ten rectrices. It may be nearly square, or at least but slightly rounded, or wedge-shaped with the middle quills prolonged beyond the rest; or, again, it maybe deeply forked, sometimes by the overgrowth of one ormore of the intermediate pairs, but most generally by the development of the outer pair. In the last case the lateral feathers may be either broadly webbed to their tip, or acuminate, or again, in some forms, may lessen to the filiform shaft, and suddenly enlarge into a terminal spatulation as in the forms known as " Racquet-tails." The wings do not offer so much variation; still there are a few groups in which diversities occur that require notice. The primaries are invariably ten in number, the outermost being the longest, except in the single instance of Aithurus, where it is shorter than the next. The group known as "Sabre-wings," comprising the genera Campylopterm, Eupetomena, and Sphencproctus, present a most curious sexual peculiarity, for while the female has nothing remarkable in the form of the wing, in the male the shaft of two or three of the outer primaries is dilated proximally, and bowed near the middle in a manner almost unique among birds. The feet again, diminutive as they are, are very diversified in form. In most the tarsus is bare, but in some groups, as Eriocnemis, it is clothed with tufts of the most delicate down, sometimes black, sometimes buff, but more often of a snowy whiteness. In some the toes are weak, nearly equal in length, and furnished with small rounded nails ; in others they are largely developed, and amied with long and sharp claws.
Apart from the well-known brilliancy of plumage, of which enough has been here said, many Humming-birds display a large amount of ornamentation in the addition to their attire of crests of various shape and size, elongated ear-tufts, projecting neck-frills, and pendant beards—forked or forming a single point. But it would be impossible here to dwell on a tenth of these beautiful modifications, each of which as it comes to our knowledge excites fresh surprise and exemplifies the ancient adage—maxime miranda in minimis Natura. It must be remarked, however, that there are certain forms which possess little or no brilliant colouring at all, but, as most tropical birds go, are very soberly clad. These are known to trochilidists as " Hermits," and by Mr Gould have been separated as a Subfamily under the name of Phaethornithince, though Mr Elliot says he cannot find any character's to distinguish it from the Trochilidceproper. But sight is not the only sense that is affected by Humming-birds. The large species known as Ptcro-phanes temmincki has a strong musky odour, very similar to that given off by the Petrels, though, so far as appears to be known, that is the only one of them that possesses this property.
All well-informed people are aware that the Trochilidce are a Family peculiar to America and its islands, but one of the com-monest of common errors is the belief that Humming-birds are found in Africa and India—to say nothing even of England. In the first two cases the mistake arises from confounding them with some of the brightly-coloured Sun-birds (Ncctariniidce), to which British colonists or residents are apt to apply the better-known name ; but in the last it can be only due to the want of perception which dis-ables the observer from distinguishing between a bird and an insect —the object seen being a Hawk-Moth (Macroglossa), whose mode of feeding and rapid flight certainly bears some resemblance to that of the Trochilidce, and hence one of the species (M. stellarum) is very generally called the "Humming-bird Hawk-Moth." But though confined to the New World the Trochilidce pervade almost every part of it. In the south Eustephanus galcritus has been seen flitting about the fuchsias of Tierra del Fuego in a snow-storm, and in the north-west Selatophorus rufus in summer visits the ribes-blossoms of Sitka, while in the north-east Trochilus colubris charms the vision of Canadians as it poises itself over the althaea-bushes in their gardens, and extends its range at least so far as lat. 57° N. Nor is the distribution of Humming-birds limited to a horizontal direction only, it rises also vertically. Oreotrochilus chimborazo and 0. pichincha live on the lofty mountains whence each takes its trivial name, but just beneath the line of perpetual snow, at an elevation of some 16,000 feet, dwelling in a world of almost constant hail, sleet, and rain, and feeding on the insects which resort to the indigenous flowering plants, while other peaks, only inferior to these in height, are no less frequented by one or more species. Peru and Bolivia produce some of the most splendid of the Family—the genera Comctes, LHphlogccna, and Tlmumastura, whose very names indicate the glories of their bearers. The comparatively gigantic Patagona inhabits the west coast of South America, while the isolated rocks of Juan Fernandez not only afford a home to the Eustepluinus before mentioned, but also to two other species of the same genus which are not found elsewhere (see BIRDS, vol. iii. p. 745). The slopes of the Northern Andes and the hill country of Colombia furnish perhaps the greatest number of forms, and some of the most beauti-ful, but leaving that great range, we part company with the largest and most gorgeously arrayed species, and their number dwindles as we approach the eastern coast. Still there are many brilliant Hum-ming-birds common enough in the Brazils, Guiana, and Venezuela. The Chrysolampis mosquitus is perhaps the most plentiful. Thou-sands of its skins are annually sent to Europe to be used in the manufacture of ornaments, its rich ruby-and-topaz glow rendering it one of the most beautiful objects imaginable. In the darkest depths of the Brazilian forests dwell the russet-clothed brotherhood of the genus Phaethornis—the " Hermits "; but the great wooded basin of the Amazons seems to be particularly unfavourable to the Trochilidce, and from Para to Ega there are scarcely a dozen species to be met with. There is no island of the Antilles but is inhabited by one or more Humming-birds, and there are some very remark-able singularities of geographical distribution to be found (see BIKDS, vol. iii. p. 749). Northwards from Panama, the highlands present many genera, whose names it would be useless here to insert, few or none of which are found in South America—though that must unquestionably be deemed the metropolis of the Family, and advancing towards Mexico the numbers gradually fall off. Eleven species have been enrolled among the fauna of the United States, but some on slender evidence, while others only just cross the frontier line.

FIG. 1.—llellisuga minima on nest, natural size. (After Gosse.)
But little room is left to speak of the habits of Hurnming-birds, which is perhaps of the less consequence since the subject, as regards most of the species which in life have come under the observation of ornithologists, has been so ably treated by writers like Waterton, Wilson, and Audubon, to say nothing of Mr Gosse, Mr Wallace, Mi-Bates, and some others, while, whatever novelty further investigation may supply, it is certain that at present we lack information that will explain the origin or the function of the many modifications of external structure of which mention has been made. But there is no one appreciative of the beauties of nature who will not recall to memory with delight the time when a live Humming-bird first met his gaze. The suddenness of the apparition, even when expected, and its brief duration, are alone enough to fix the fluttering vision on the mind's eye. The wings of the bird, if flying, are only-visible as a thin grey film, bounded above and below by fine black threads, in form of a St Andrew's cross,—the effect on the observer's retina of the instantaneous reversal of the motion of the wing at each beat:—the strokes being so rapid as to leave no more distinct image. Consequently an adequate representation of the bird on the wing cannot be produced by the draughtsman. Humming-birds show to thegreatestadvantage when engagedin contest with another, for rival cocks fight fiercely, and, as may be expected, it is then that their plumage flashes with the most glowing tints. But these are quite invisible to the ordinary spectator except when very near at hand, though doubtless efficient enough for their object, whether | that be to inflame their mate or to irritate or daunt their opponent, I or something that we cannot compass. Humming-birds, however, will also often sit still for a while, chiefly in an exposed position, on a dead twig, occasionally darting into the air, either to catch a passing insect or to encounter an adversary; and so pugnacious are

they that they will frequently attack birds many times bigger than themselves, without, as would seem, any provocation.
The food of Humming-birds consists mainly of insects, mostly gathered in the manner already described from the flowers they visit; but, according to Mr Wallace, there are many species which he has never seen so occupied, and the " Hermits " especially seem to live almost entirely upon the insects which are found on the lower surface of leaves, over which they will closely pass their bill, balanc-ing themselves the while vertically in the air. The same excellent observer also remarks that even among the common flower-frequent-ing species he has found the alimentary canal entirely filled with insects, and very rarely a trace of honey. It is this fact doubtless that has hindered almost all attempts at keeping them in confine-ment for any length of time—nearly every one making the experi-ment having fed his captives only with syrup, which is wholly in-sufficient as sustenance, and seeing therefore the wretched creatures gradually sink into inanition and die of hunger.
The beautiful nests of Humming-birds, than which the work of fairies could not be conceived more delicate, are to be seen in most museums, and will be found on examination to be very solidly and tenaciously built, though the materials are generally of the slightest —cotton - wool or some vegetable down and spiders' webs. They vary greatly in form and ornamentation—for it would seem that the portions of lichen which frequently bestud them are affixed to their exterior with that object, though probably concealment was the

original intention. They are mostly cup-shaped, and the singular
fact is on record (Zool. Journal, v. p. 1) that in one instance as the
young grew in size the walls were heightened by the parents, until
at last the nest was more than twice as big as when the eggs were
laid and hatched. Some species, however, suspend their nests from
the stem or tendril of a climbing plant, and more than one case
has been known in which it has been attached to a hanging rope.
These pensile nests are said to have been found loaded on one side
with a small stone or bits of earth to ensure their safe balance,
though how the compensatory process is applied no one can say.
Other species, and especially those belonging to the "Hermit"
group, weave a frail structure round the side of a drooping palm-leaf.
The eggs arc never more than two in number, quite white, and hav-
ing both ends nearly equal. The solicitude for her offspring dis-
played by the mother is not exceeded by that of any other birds,
but it seems doubtful whether the male takes any interest in the
brood. (A. N.)

Footnotes

See also Prof. Morley's Life ofGirdlamo Cardano (ii. pp. 152,153).

_ Under this name Pliny perpetuated (Hist. Naiuralis, viii. 25) the confusion that had doubtless arisen before his time of two very distinct birds. As Sundevall remarks (Tentamen, p. 87, note), rpox't^os was evidently the name commonly given by the ancient Greeks to the smaller Plovers, and was not improperly applied by Herodotus (ii. 68) to the species that feeds in the open mouth of the Cro-codile—the Pluvianus cegyptius of modern ornithologists—in which

sense Aristotle (Hist. Animalium, ix. 6) also uses it. But the received text of Aristotle has two other passages (ix. 1 and 11) wherein the word appears in a wholly different connexion, and can there be only taken to mean the Wren—the usual Greek name of which would seem to be ÓpXiA.os (Sundevall, Om Aristotl. Djurarter, No. 54). Thou?1-none of his editors or commentators have suggested the possibility of such a thing, one can hardly help suspecting that in these passages some early copyist has substituted i-po^ÍAos for ípx^os, and so laid the foundation of a curious error. It may be here remarked that the Crocodile of St Domingo is said to have the like office done for it by some kind of bird, which is called by Descourtilz (Voyage, iii. p. 26), a " Todier," but, as Geoffr. St Hilaire observes (Descr. de VEgypte, ed. 2, xxiv. p. 440), is more probably a Plover. Unfortunately the fauna of Hispaniola is not much better known now than in Oviedo's days.

Thus Docimastes ensifer, in which the bill is longer than both head and body together.

is especially the case with the smaller species of the group, for the larger, though shooting with ecpial celerity from place to place, seem to flap their wings with comparatively slow but not less powerful strokes. The difference was especially observed with re-spect to the largest of all Humming-birds, Patagona gigas, by Mr Darwin.
The resemblance, so far as it exists, must be merely the result of analogical function, and certainly indicates no affinity between the families.
It is probable that in various members of the Trochilidce the struc-cure of the tongue, and other parts correlated therewith, will be found subject to several and perhaps considerable modifications, as is the ease in various members of the Piadas. At present there are scarcely half a dozen species of Humming-birds of which it can be said that any part of their anatomy is known.
These are especially observable in Rhampliodon ncevius and An-drodon aequatorialis.
3.Mr Gosse (Birds of Jamaica, p. 130) says that Mellisuga minima, the smallest species of the Family, has "a real song "—but the like is not recorded of any other.
There are several species in which the tail is very much elongated,
markable Loddigesia mirabilis of Chachapoyas in Peru, which last
This is especially the case with the smaller species of the group, for the larger, though shooting with ecpial celerity from place to place, seem to flap their wings with comparatively slow but not less powerful strokes. The difference was especially observed with re-spect to the largest of all Humming-birds, Patagona gigas, by Mr Darwin.
152); but " trochilidists " in giving their measurements do not take
these extraordinary developments into account.

The specific name of a species of Chrysolampis. commonly written by many writers moschitus, would lend to the belief that it was a mistake for nioschatm, i.e., " musky," but in truth it originates with their carelessness, for though they quote Linnaius as their authority they can never have referred to his works, or they would have found the word to be mosquitus, the '-mosquito" of Oviedo, awkwardly, it is true, Latinized. If emendation be needed, mmcatus, after Gesner's example, is undoubtedly preferable.







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