Of all the bird species in North America few are more gloriously plumaged than the hummingbirds.
Except for accidentals and strays, in the Eastern United States we only have the pleasure of one species' company: the ruby throated hummingbird, no bigger than my thumb, with an iridescent green back and whitish underparts.
The male has a fiery red throat that glows like burning embers when seen in the right light. The female lacks the gaudy bib.
The family name of hummingbirds is Trochilidae. That is the scientific name; they are called hummingbirds because of the humming or droning sound of their wings in flight. There are at least 319 species in the family, including the smallest bird in the world, the two and a quarter inch long Cuban Bee Hummingbird.
All of them are believed to have originated in South America with some species later radiating northward, as is true with many of our other migratory birds, the warblers being a good example.
Hummingbirds are flying examples of evolutionary specialization at its best. They have slender bills, straight or curved, perfectly adapted for probing into the inner recesses of flowering plants for nectar. All the members of the family are swift in flight with wings that are swept back like the most advanced jet aircraft and they have been clocked at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour.
Their aerial maneuvering is something to behold. They can hover stationary in the air, fly backwards, shift sideways, fly straight up and down like a helicopter. They have the ability to rotate their shoulder joint, rather than the "hand" part of the wing like most birds, and this enables them to cut the air decisively on both the forestroke and backstroke.
In spite of their small size, or I should say because of it, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism rate of any warm-blooded vertebrate animal in the world, with the possible exception of shrews. Because of this rapid burning or oxidation of their food, they must feed continuously to stay alive.
Males are pugnacious in defending their territories and favorite feeding spots from other male Ruby-throats, and I have seen them give chase to crows and kingbirds. During their stay with us they commonly feed at flowers such as jewelweed, phlox, lilies, and honeysuckle. They are also fond of flowering trees such as maples, tulip trees, and buckeyes, when they are in bloom. Where salvia and other red flowers are planted about houses, the ruby-throat is apt to be a frequent visitor.
In the Western United States over twenty species of hummingbirds occur with Arizona claiming more than its share, some of them rare visitors from Mexico. The tropics can count the greatest number of species; maybe as many as three hundred and fifty, although the taxonomy is somewhat confusing because of the close similarity between many types. Most of them are birds of dazzling beauty and they range in size from smaller than our ruby-throated hummingbird to some species like the giant hummingbird of South America that is nine and a half inches long from tip of bill to tip of tail.
A roster of their names gives some idea of their appearance and their diversity. There is the green-fronted lancebill, the swallow-tailed hummingbird, the sparkling violetear, the fiery-tailed awlbill, the spangled coquette, the blue-tailed emerald, the blue-chinned sapphire, the blossom crown, the velvet-browed brilliant, the crimson topaz, the purple-backed sunbeam, the amethyst-throated sunangel, the bronze-tailed comet, and the blue-tufted starthroat, to name a few.
Given the exquisite beauty of such plumage, it is little wonder that hummingbirds have been relentlessly hunted since the time of the Aztecs when officials of the Montezuma's court wore cloaks made entirely of hummingbird skins. During the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of skins were exported to Europe and America to adorn milady's hats and gowns. Other glittering skins were made into artificial flowers and other embellishments.
Donald Culross Peattie in his book, A Cup of Sky, tells of how four hundred thousand Brazilian hummingbird skins were auctioned off in London in one week in 1888. By the second decade of this century, fortunately, most of this trade was abolished by legislation forbidding the importation of wild bird plumages into England and the United States. Other European countries followed suit.
Each year in the Clear Creek Valley there are usually seven or eight nesting pairs of hummers. When they return in the spring from their wintering grounds, they add an exotic and colorful touch to the local avifauna.
To my mind, at least, it is this coming and going and the ability of many birds to navigate on long-distance treks that makes birding such an exciting occupation. It is like getting to know the great explorers of the past: Cristoforo Colombo and Vasco de Gama and Hernando de Soto and Amerigo Vespucci. No. It's better than that. The Neotropical birds are far superior navigators to any of those men who were usually playing Blind Man's Bluff.
During the spring migration birds arrive in the valley from starting points scattered throughout the Southern Hemisphere. To watch them is like visiting an international airport where the great jets from many foreign lands are constantly arriving and departing. It is even more amazing when one considers that these avian travelers are free agents, that for the most part they weigh but a few ounces, that they have navigated immense distances, and that their arrival time is seldom off by more than a few days,
The wonder is increased when one takes into consideration that many birds follow the same routes each year, stop at the same places during the various stages of their trips, and usually nest in the same locality as the year before. With first year birds it is even more of a feat.
Consider a ruby-throated hummingbird that was hatched in this valley, nurtured by its parents during the summer, then setting off on a long and perilous journey involving weeks, if not months, of travel to a land where it has never been, wintering there, and then returning to its summer home. Is that not fantastic? I carelessly forgot to mention that it probably crossed the Gulf of Mexico, spent the winter in north-central Mexico, or in the hills overlooking banana plantations in Honduras or Guatemala, or perhaps showed up in the backyard of an American family living in Costa Rica or Panama.
Over half the year - if it was in earshot of human beings - the language it heard most often was Spanish. When I see my first hummingbirds each spring is it any wonder then that I am excited? Would it be more appropriate if I doffed my hat and greeted them with, "Como esta Vd.? Espero que Vd. esta bien!"