HUMMING-BIRD, a name in use, possibly ever since English explorers first knew of them, for the beautiful little creatures to which, from the sound occasionally made by the rapid vibrations of their wings, it is applied. Among books that are ordinarily in naturalists’ hands, the name seems to be first found in the Musaeum 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 traced, is by Thomas Morton (d. 1646), a disreputable lawyer who had a curiously adventurous career in New England, in the New English Canaan, printed in 1637—a rare work giving an interesting description of the natural scenery and social life in New England in the 17th century, and reproduced by Peter Force in his Historical Tracts (vol. ii., Washington, 1838). André 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.[1] 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. 629) translating it literally into Latin as Passer muscatus, owing, as he says, his knowledge 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 Archbishop Hamilton at Edinburgh, he visited Gesner at Zürich, about the end of the year 1552.[2] The name still survives in the French oiseau-mouche; but the ordinary Spanish appellation is, and long has been, Tominejo, from tomin, 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 Colibri, to say nothing of others bestowed upon them (chiefly from some peculiarity of habit) by Europeans, like Picaflores, Chuparosa and Froufrou. Barrère, in 1745, conceiving that humming-birds were allied to the wren, the Trochilus,[3] in part, of Pliny, applied that name in a generic sense (Ornith. spec. novum, pp. 47, 48) to both. Taking the hint thus afforded, Linnaeus very soon after went farther, and, excluding the wrens, founded his genus Trochilus for the reception of such humming-birds as were known to him. The unfortunate act of the great nomenclator cannot be set aside; and, since his time, ornithologists, with but few exceptions, have followed his example, so that nowadays humming-birds are universally recognized as forming the family Trochilidae.

The relations of the Trochilidae 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, Cypselidae, 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 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, which in both families are curiously dwarfed. Still the manus, in comparison with the other parts of the wing, is so long that the term Macrochires is not wholly inaccurate. The affinity of the Trochilidae and Cypselidae 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 of the Trochilidae, rendering them the longest-billed birds known.[4] Huxley takes these two families, together with the goatsuckers (Caprimulgidae), to form the division Cypselomorphae—one of the two into which he separated his larger group Aegithognathae. 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.[5]

So far as is known, all humming-birds possess a protrusible tongue, in conformation peculiar among the class Aves, though to some extent similar to that member in the woodpeckers (Picidae)[6]—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 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.[7] 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[8]), 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 Cypselomorphae.[9]

From The Cambridge Natural History, vol. xi., “Birds,” by permission of Macmillan & Co., Ltd.
Fig. 1.Aithurus polytmus.

Humming-birds comprehend the smallest members of the class Aves. The largest among them measures no more than 81/2 and the least 23/8 in. in length, for it is now admitted generally that Sloane must have been in error when he described (Voyage, ii. 308) the “least humming-bird of Jamaica” as “about 11/4 in. long from the end of the bill to that of the tail”—unless, indeed, he meant the proximal end of each. There are, however, several species in which the tail is very much elongated, such as the Aithurus polytmus (fig. 1) of Jamaica, and the remarkable Loddigesia mirabilis of Chachapoyas in Peru, which last was for some time only known from a unique specimen (Ibis, 1880, p. 152); but “trochilidists” in giving their measurements do not take these extraordinary developments into account. Next to their generally small size, the best-known characteristic of the Trochilidae 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 Nectariniidae, or sun-birds of the tropical parts of the Old World, in popular estimation so often confounded with them.

The number of species of humming-birds now known to exist considerably exceeds 400; and, though none departs 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 uninitiated. 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 Trochilidae, insufficient for the purpose of arranging these birds in groups, and characters on which genera can be founded have to be sought in the style and coloration of plumage, as well as in the form and proportions 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 withhold, and the genera established by the ornithologists of a preceding generation have been broken up by their successors into multitudinous 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 recent trochilidists, such as Gould,[10] Mulsant[11] and Elliot.[12] It would be as unprofitable here to trace the successive steps by which the original genus Trochilus of Linnaeus, 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, arrangement; it seems, however, expedient to notice the fact that some of the authors of the 18th century[13] supposed themselves to have seen the way to dividing what we now know as the family Trochilidae 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 “colibris,” and those having it straight “oiseaux-mouches.” The distinction wholly breaks down, not merely because there are Trochilidae 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,[14] while it may be remarked that several of the species placed by those authorities among the “colibris” are not humming-birds at all.

In describing the extraordinary brilliant plumage which most of the Trochilidae exhibit, ornithologists 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 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 Trochilidae, and there is hardly a precious stone—ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald or topaz—the name of which may not fitly, and without any exaggeration, be employed in regard to humming-birds. 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 that cover the upper parts of the body very frequently have a metallic lustre of golden-green, which in other birds would be thought sufficiently beautiful, but in the Trochilidae its sheen is overpowered by the almost dazzling splendour that radiates from the spots where Nature’s lapidary has set her jewels. The flight feathers are almost invariably dusky—the rapidity of their movement would, perhaps, render any display of colour ineffective: while, on the contrary, the feathers of the tail, which, as the bird hovers over its food-bearing flowers, is almost always expanded, and is therefore comparatively motionless, often exhibit a rich translucency, as of stained glass, but iridescent in a manner that no stained glass ever is—cinnamon merging into crimson, crimson changing to purple, purple to violet, 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 may be deeply forked, sometimes by the overgrowth of one or more 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 Campylopterus, Eupetomena and Sphenoproctus, 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 armed 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 Gould have been separated as a subfamily under the name of Phaethornithinae, though Elliot says he cannot find any characters to distinguish it from the Trochilidae proper. But sight is not the only sense that is affected by humming-birds. The large species known as Pterophanes 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.[15]

From The Cambridge National History, vol. ix., “Birds,” by permission of Macmillan & Co. Ltd.
Fig. 2.—Eulampis jugularus.

All well-informed people are aware that the Trochilidae are a family peculiar to America and its islands, but one of the commonest 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 (Nectariniidae), 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 disables 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 Trochilidae, 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 Trochilidae pervade almost every part of it. In the south Eustephanus galeritus 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 O. pichincha live on the lofty mountains whence each takes its specific name, but just beneath the line of perpetual snow, at an elevation of some 16,000 ft., dwelling in a world of almost constant hall, 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 Cometes, Diphlogaena and Thaumastura, 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 Eustephanus but also to two other species of the same genus which are not found elsewhere. The slopes of the Northern Andes and the hill country of Colombia furnish perhaps the greatest number of forms, and some of the most beautiful, 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 humming-birds common enough in the Brazils, Guiana and Venezuela. The Chrysolampis mosquitus is perhaps the most plentiful. Thousands 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 Trochilidae, and from Pará 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 remarkable singularities of geographical distribution to be found. 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.

The habits of humming-birds have been ably treated by writers like Waterton, Wilson and Audubon, to say nothing of P. H. Gosse, A. R. Wallace, H. W. Bates and others. 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 the greatest advantage when engaged in 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, 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 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, balancing themselves the while vertically in the air. The same excellent observer also remarks that even among the common flower-frequenting 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 confinement for any length of time—nearly every one making the experiment having fed his captives only with syrup, which, without the addition of some animal food, is insufficient as sustenance, and seeing therefore the wretched creatures gradually sink into inanition and die of hunger. With better management, however, several species have been brought on different occasions to Europe, some of them to England.

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 are never more than two in number, quite white, and having both ends nearly equal. The solicitude for her offspring displayed 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.) 

  1. In the edition of Oviedo’s work published at Salamanca in 1547, the account (lib. xiv. cap. 4) runs thus: “Ay assi mismo enesta ysla vnos paxaricos tan negros como vn terciopelo negro muy bueno & son tan pequeños que ningunos he yo visto en Indias menores excepto el que aca se llama paxaro mosquito. El qual es tan pequeño que el bulto del es menor harto o assaz que le cabeça del dedo pulgar de la mano. Este no le he visto enesta Ysla pero dizen me que aqui los ay: & por esso dexo de hablar enel pa lo dezir dode los he visto que es en la tierra firme quãdo della se trate.” A modern Spanish version of this passage will be found in the beautiful edition of Oviedo’s works published by the Academy of Madrid in 1851 (i. 444).
  2. See also Morley’s Life of Girolamo Cardano (ii. 152, 153).
  3. Under this name Pliny perpetuated (Hist. naturalis, viii. 25) the confusion that had doubtless arisen before his time of two very distinct birds. As Sundevall remarks (Tentamen, p. 87, note), τροχίλος 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 crocodile—the Pluvianus aegyptius 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 ὄρχιλος (Sundevall, Om Aristotl. Djurarter, No. 54). Though none of his editors or commentators has suggested the possibility of such a thing, one can hardly help suspecting that in these passages some early copyist has substituted τροχίλος for ὄρχιλος, and so laid the foundation of a curious error. It may be remarked that the crocodile of Santo Domingo is said to have the like office done for it by some kind of bird, which is called by Descourtilz (Voyage, iii. 26), a “Todier,” but, as Geoffr. St Hilaire observes (Descr. de l’Égypte, ed. 2, xxiv. 440), is more probably a plover. Unfortunately the fauna of Hispaniola is not much better known now than in Oviedo’s days.
  4. Thus Docimastes ensifer, in which the bill is longer than both head and body together.
  5. This is especially the case with the smaller species of the group, for the larger, though shooting with equal celerity from place to place, seem to flap their wings with comparatively slow but not less powerful strokes. The difference was especially observed with respect to the largest of all humming-birds, Patagona gigas, by Darwin.
  6. The resemblance, so far as it exists, must be merely the result of analogical function, and certainly indicates no affinity between the families.
  7. It is probable that in various members of the Trochilidae the structure of the tongue, and other parts correlated therewith, will be found subject to several and perhaps considerable modifications, as is the case in various members of the Picidae.
  8. These are especially observable in Rhamphodon naevius and Androdon aequatorialis.
  9. P. H. 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.
  10. A Monograph of the Trochilidae or Humming-birds, 5 vols. imp. fol. (London, 1861, with Introduction in 8vo).
  11. Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, ou colibris, 4 vols., with supplement, imp. 4to (Lyon-Genève-Bale, 1874–1877).
  12. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, No. 317, A Classification and Synopsis of the Trochilidae, 1 vol. imp. 4to (Washington, 1879).
  13. Salerne must be excepted, especially as he was rebuked by Buffon for doing what we now deem right.
  14. For example Avocettula recurvirostris of Guiana and A. euryptera of Colombia.
  15. The specific name of a species of Chrysolampis, commonly written by many writers moschitus, would lead to the belief that it was a mistake for moschatus, i.e. “musky,” but in truth it originates with their carelessness, for though they quote Linnaeus 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, muscatus, after Gesner’s example, is undoubtedly, preferable.