It can be tough to pinpoint exactly when hummingbirds came into existence. Their bone structure is so small it’s extremely difficult for them to stand the test of time through the centuries. Even though there isn’t a lot of fossil proof of hummingbirds over the centuries, there is documentation and stories that have been passed down through generations. The Native American Tribes have passed down their beliefs and sightings of the fascinating birds.
The Navajo’s believed the mating dive was a way for the hummingbirds to see what existed above the sky. The Taino thought the hummingbirds represented rebirth, and although they were an emblem of harmony and peace, they were also thought to be great protectors. This makes sense because of the territorial nature the hummingbird possesses, while still elegantly being part of the environment. In fact, the Taino even named the protectors the “Hummingbird Warriors.” The Cherokees also shared the belief that hummingbirds had a spiritual nature and that the medicine man would retrieve plants by turning himself into a hummingbird.
Many other ancient beliefs from different cultures have revolved around the tiny hummers like they are reincarnated loved ones after they depart. The Apache, Pueblo, Hitchiti Nations and many more have their own unique stories about the meaning behind the hummingbirds. The Aztecs would actually use parts of real hummers in the clothing they wore in battle and they thought fallen soldiers would return as a hummingbird.
The Maya Indians believed that hummingbirds were made from leftover pieces of other birds when the Great God was designing the earth. They thought that he did not waste anything and used all remaining parts of all creations. Because he had to make the birds so tiny, he gave the ability to fly in a unique way. Once the hummingbird was created, he decided that he would make a mate for it. When the wedding of the hummingbirds took place, their feathers were dull and unattractive, so as a way to honor the hummers on their special day, other birds gave them colorful feathers. This is supposedly when spiders offered their silk to the female hummingbird to use for her future nest. The Sun then married the two and said when they looked to him he would always make their feathers enchantingly shine. From that point on, the Sun would camouflage himself as a hummingbird to try to woo the moon.
The first European settlers that came to America noticed that American Indian ambassadors decorated themselves with jewelry that has the symbol of the hummingbird on it. However, they couldn’t tell if the hummingbird was actually a bird, or if it was just a large bug. Christopher Columbus wrote about hummingbirds in his travels, and the so did Hector St. John de Crevecouer who described their beak as “long and sharp as a coarse sewing-needle.” He was one of the original American nature writers.
Sadly, in the nineteenth century, Europe had developed a fascination for the little hummers and hundreds of thousands were hunted and killed for their skin. They were used to make artificial flowers, jewelry and other adornments. During this time, you could also find hummingbirds being depicted in art. Poets started to write about the birds, and John James Audubon gave the first documentation of people feeding hummingbirds with artificial flowers in his well-recognized work, The Birds of America, 1840-1844. By 1950, commercial hummingbird feeders were advertised in Audubon magazine.
Even hummingbird cake was made in the 1970’s, but don’t worry, it isn’t made with real hummingbird! Its focus is being sweetened with fruits. One ingredient used in it is vanilla, and when the first explorers of the Americas brought the vanilla beans back to Europe, they tried to grow the orchard in the different soil, however, they had no luck. They soon discovered that it was the hummingbird that was pollenating this plant. Because Europe did not have hummingbirds in their region, they had to go in by hand to pollinate the vanilla orchards.
One thing that makes the hummingbird so fascinating is their ability to evolve through time. It is thought that 22 million years again they began reinventing themselves to the new eco-system they found in South America. Their bills have evolved based on the evolution of flowers and plant life. New species of hummingbirds continue to show up, and they work hard to maintain their own eco-systems in an effort to protect, survive and advance in the nature that is provided for them today.