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I CONFESS TO BE not much of a bird watcher. Indeed, I take delight in the satirical “Birds Aren’t Real” movement claiming our avian friends are actually Biological Intelligent Reconnaissance Drones monitoring our whereabouts. Of course, the whole point is poking fun at the wacko conspiracy crowd, though as a SimanaitisSays reader said, “I wish the conspiracy theorists had the cognitive ability to realize that they’ve become the butt of a joke.…”
On the other hand, er… wing, er… paw, I also delight in the occasional animal tales of Katherine Rundell in London Review of Books: See the ferret in my “Celebration of Saki,” the swift in “On Being Footless and Inquisitive,” and the stork in “Strengthen Ye, Strengthen Ye!”
Today I offer tidbits about Trochilidae, the more than 300 species and 113 genera of hummingbirds, gleaned from Katherine Rundell’s “Consider the Hummingbird,” London Review of Books, November 3, 2022, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
A Bird of Superlatives. Rundell notes, “Hummingbirds are the smallest living bird. The most miniature of these miniatures, the male bee hummingbird, weighs less than two grams, about as much as half a teaspoonful of sugar. Hatched after eighteen days of incubation from an egg the size of a chickpea, his wings grow to barely three centimetres across.”
Also, Rundell writes, “A study from Yale earlier this year reported that ‘the diversity of bird-visible colours in hummingbird plumages exceeds the known diversity of colours found in the plumages of all other bird species combined.’ There is no bird species in the world more colourful.”
What’s more, Rundell says, “They are a shining race, and they see one another more vividly than we do. The majority of birds have cones in their retina that allow them to perceive a spectrum of ultraviolet colours invisible to us; hummingbirds see an ultra-violet yellow, for instance, which is as different from the yellow we see as green is from blue.”
Highest Metabolic Rates. Wikipedia says, “Hummingbirds have the highest mass-specific metabolic rate of any homeothermic animal.” Rundell adds, “They are turbine creatures; the hummingbird heart pumps 1200 times a minute. With a metabolic rate 77 times faster than our own, they need to feed almost continuously on flower nectar and small insects—mosquitos, ants, the occasional wasp.”
“At night, therefore,” Rundell continues, “or if the weather becomes too cold, many hummingbirds enter torpor to protect themselves from starvation, slowing their metabolisms almost to a halt. They become chill to the touch and motionless; if you held one you might think it was dead. Creatures of superlatives, they are record-breaking even in stillness; the temperature of one black metaltail hummingbird was recorded as 3.3°C, the lowest ever observed in a non-hibernating mammal or bird.”
Native American Heritage. Rundell observes, “Some of the earliest inhabitants of the American south-west, the Navajo and Mojave peoples, have old stories that salute the hummingbird. The Mojave myth says that at the beginning of human life all people lived in darkness underground. They dwelled in the earth until a hummingbird, released into the tunnels above them, navigated the narrow twisting passages and led them up into the bright of the day.”
By Any Other Name. Their English name, of course, comes from the sound of the hummingbird’s beating wings. Wikipedia says, “The humming sound derives from aerodynamic forces generated by both the downstrokes and upstrokes of the rapid wingbeats, causing oscillations and harmonics that evoke an acoustic quality likened to that of a musical instrument…. The highest recorded wingbeats for wild hummingbirds during hovering is 88 per second….” It increases during courtship.
Rundell notes, “When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they were unsure what they were seeing: bird or insect or something in between? The French, unflatteringly, called them oiseaux mouches, ‘bird flies’; in Brazil, the smallest were besourinhos, or ‘little beetles’, and in Spanish picaflores, ‘flower stingers.’ ”
Occasionally I see (and hear) a hummingbird enjoying the plants outside my computer-room/GMax factory window. I agree with Rundell’s wonder at these creatures. She says, “There is nothing I admire more than evolution. But it’s difficult, more than with any other living thing, to imagine hummingbirds beginning as archaebacteria among primordial murk, painstakingly working over millions of years to grow bright wings. They seem as if they were made in an instant, a spark of genius from an extravagant god.”
Thanks, Katherine, for these thoughts. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
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I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that hummingbird are migratory, with routes extending from Canada to equatorial Central America. https://www.hummingbirdsplus.org/hummingbird-migration-map-2021/#:~:text=Like%20a%20lot%20of%20birds%20out%20there%2C%20hummingbirds,to%20migrate%20until%20around%20the%20month%20of%20February.
South American hummingbirds have a reverse migration scheme.
In the ’80s, I worked in Sierra Vista, AZ along the Huachuca Mountains. A favorite weekend getaway were spartan cabins in Ramsey Canyon, a couple miles from Mexico. No TV, phone or distraction other than an abundance of every variety of hummingbird that migrated through. You’d sit on quiet porches, surrounded by tiny, technicolor acrobats and if you held up a half an orange, they’d sip the juice right out of your hand.
Ramsey Canyon sounds like a magical location. These little darlings are awesome.
Thank you, sir. Another ranging jewel from your nonpareil website. A casualty of corporate journalism, Road & Track’s loss our gain. SimanaitisSay easily ranks with–especially for autoholics catholic in their tastes — the New Yorker, itself the model for the original Road & Track, which the rare worthy, Dennis Simanaitis, helped build and graced so many of R&T’s better years.
Stirling Moss could supposedly read newsprint at 10 feet. But my girlfriend can hear hummingbirds at the same distance.
Thank you sincerely for your kind words about the website. They’re much appreciated.