When European settlers first saw hummingbirds they thought they were a cross between an insect and a bird! How could so much life be bound up in these buzzing little bundles of feathers? Why such extravagant colors? They wondered what magic caused these flying gems to suddenly darken, then light up once again as they turned their little heads in front of those blurred, whirring wings?
It was obvious from the very beginning that various Native American cultures had found decorative, ceremonial, and mythological uses for hummingbirds. The pilgrims met American Indian ambassadors with hummingbird earrings. Soldiers and missionaries in Mexico met Aztec kings who wore cloaks made entirely of hummingbird skins.
Hummingbirds quickly captured the imagination of the Euro-Americans, too. Fantastic tales emerged like the one that said hummers in autumn stick their long beaks into the trunks of trees and die, only to resurrect again in the spring; or another that said hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese or swans.
Even Christopher Columbus wrote of hummingbirds in his diary. And just a few years after his discovery of the new world, a hummingbird skin found its way to Rome as a gift to the Pope.
One of the very first American nature writers was Hector St. John de Crevecouer. He wrote this:
It’s bill is long and sharp as a coarse sewing-needle: like the bee, nature has taught it to find out in the calyx of flowers and blossoms those mellifluous particles that can serve it for sufficient food; and yet it seems to leave them untouched, undeprived of anything that our eyes can possibly distinguish. When it feeds it appears as if immovable, though continually on the wing… they are the most irascible of the feathered tribe. Where do passions find room in so diminutive a body: They often fight with the fury of lions… When fatigued, it has often perched within a few feet of me, and on such favorable of opportunities I have surveyed it with the most minute attention. Its little eyes appear like diamonds, reflecting light on every side; most elegantly finished in all parts, it is a miniature work of our great parent,k who seems to have formed it smallest and at the same time the most beautiful of the winged species.”
The first biologist to describe hummingbirds in a scientific treatise was Linnaeus, who in 1758 published accounts of eighteen species in his Systema Naturae. An eighteenth century French naturalist named Buffon also attempted to catalog and describe the world’s hummingbirds. He called them “flybirds.”
By the middle of the nineteenth century there was a large market for hummingbird skins in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of hummingbirds were being killed in South America and shipped to markets in London and other cities, where millions of skins were purchased for collections as well as to make artificial flowers, “dust catchers,” and other ornaments.
Hummingbirds were, by that time, beginning to appear in art. Between 1829 and 1832 R. P. Lesson published a three-volume monograph with color plates. Between 1849 and 1861, England’s John Gould published a five-volume monograph with 360 hand-colored lithographic plates of hummingbirds. Many of these pictures are quite beautiful, even though they were made from stuffed specimens. Gould traveled to America and saw his first live hummingbirds in 1857.
American bird artist, John James Audubon, said hummingbirds were “glittering garments of the rainbow.”
A few poets began to honor hummingbirds with carefully chosen words. When Emily Dickinson saw a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in her garden, she wrote these lines:
He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose —
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,
Till every spice is tasted —
He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye —
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!
An important monograph about hummingbirds was published by D.E. Eliot in 1878. In 1890 Robert Ridgeway published a monograph about hummingbirds, which contemporary hummingbird expert, Paul Johnsgard, calls “still the most valuable and definitive single volume on hummingbirds of North and Central America, particularly for its keys and plumage descriptions.”
In 1940 A.C. Bent published accounts of the life histories of 18 North American species of hummingbirds.
In 1945 James Patterson published a classification system for hummingbirds, which has become the standard authority.
In 1973 Alexander Skutrch published the Life of the Hummingbird. The book had color illustrations by Arthur Singer.
At the end of the twentieth century the best book on North American hummingbirds is HUMMINGBIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA by Paul Johnsgard (2nd edition, 1997).