That early impressions of the mind are vividly retained, while events of the day flit from our memory, must have been experienced by every one. How vivid, then, is my recollection of the first Humming-Bird which met my admiring gaze! with what delight did I examine its tiny body and feast my eyes on its glittering plumage!

This early impression, I well remember, gradually increased into an earnest desire to attain a more intimate acquaintance with the lovely group of birds to which it pertained, and was still further strengthened when an opportunity was afforded me of inspecting the, at that time, unique collection of the Trochilidæ formed by the late Mr. George Loddiges, of Hackney. This gentleman and myself were imbued with a kindred spirit in the love we both entertained for this family of living gems. To describe the feeling which animated us with regard to them is impossible; it can, in fact, only be realized by those who have made Natural History a study, and who pursue the investigation of its charming mysteries with ardour and delight. That our enthusiasm and excitement with regard to most things become lessened, if not deadened, by time, particularly when we have acquired what we vainly consider a complete knowledge of the subject, is, I fear, too often the case with most of us; not so, however, I believe with those who take up the study of the Family of Humming-Birds. Certainly I can affirm that such is not the case with myself; for the pleasure which I experience on seeing a Humming-Bird is as great at the present moment as when I first saw one. During the first twenty years of my acquaintance with these wonderful works of creation, my thoughts were often directed to them in the day, and my night dreams have not unfrequently carried me to their native forests in the distant country of America.

In passing through this world I have remarked that when inquirers of a strong will really set themselves to attain a definite object, they generally accomplish it; and in my own case the time at length arrived when I was permitted to revel in the delight of seeing the Humming-Birds in a state of nature, and to observe their habits in the woods and among the great flowering trees of the United States of America and in Canada. For some time a single Humming-Bird was my constant companion during days of toil by road and rail; and I ultimately succeeded in bringing a living pair within the confines of the British Islands, and a single individual to London, where it lived for two days, when, from the want of proper food or the change of climate, it died.

Although so enthusiastically attached to the subject, I should not have formed a collection of the Trochildæ, or attempted an account of their history, had not my late friend Mr. George Loddiges (whose many excellences are too universally known to need any comment from me) been prematurely removed from among us. Prior to his lamented death, whatever species I procured from my various correspondents were freely placed at his disposal; and his collection was then unrivalled, and the pride of the owner as well as of his country, so far as a private collection could be considered of national importance. It was not until after Mr. Loddiges’ decease that I determined upon forming the collection I myself possess, which now far surpasses every other, both in the number of species and examples. Ten years ago this collection was exhibited for a short time in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regent’s Park, and, I believe, afforded unmixed delight to the many thousands who visited those Gardens in the memorable year 1851. Many favourable notices of it appeared in the periodicals of the day; and my friend Mr. Martin published a small popular work in express reference to it. During the period which has since elapsed I have been unceasing in my endeavours to obtain every species which has been discovered by the enterprising travellers of this country, of Germany, of France, and of America. It would be invidious were I to extol the exertions of one more than those of another, nor could I do so without committing injustice; for the travellers of all these countries have shown equal intrepidity in their endeavours to bring to light the hidden treasures of the great primeeval forests of the New World. Some of them, such as Azara, Spix, Bullock, DeLattre, Floresi, Dyson, Hoffmann, and Mathews (the discoverer of the wonderful Loddigesia mirabilis), are no longer among us: of those living who have paid especial attention to the Humming-Birds I may mention the names of Prince Maximilian of Wied, Waterton, Gosse, Warszewicz, Linden, Bridges, Jameson, Wallace, Bates, Darwin, Reeves, Hauxwell, Skinner, Bourcier, Sallé, Salvin, Fraser, Gundlach, Bryant, Montes de Oca, &c. It is to these men, living and dead, that science is indebted for a knowledge of so many of these “gems of creation;” and it is by their exertions that such collections as Mr. Loddiges’ and my own have been formed. I regret exceedingly that I have not seen so much of this lovely group of birds m a state of nature as I could have wished: the traveller and the historian are seldom united; and in this instance it would have been impossible. The constant personal attention and care necessary for the production of such a work as ‘A Monograph of the Trochilideæ’ could only be given in a metropolis; for in no other place could such a publication be accomplished without a greatly increased expenditure both of time and money: it is only in capitals like London and Paris that undertakings of this nature can be carried out successfully; for nowhere else are the requisite talents and materials to be obtained.

I feel that I am greatly indebted to those who have honoured this work with their support for their kindness and the patience with which they have continued with me to its completion —the more especially as, owing to the discovery of so many new species since its commencement, it has extended far beyond its expected limits. I am also especially indebted to those persons connected with its production, by whose assistance I have been enabled to bring so great an undertaking to a satisfactory close. To my artist Mr. Richter, to Mr. Prince, and to Mr. Bayfield (all names connected with my former works), I owe many thanks. To the projectors and publisher of ‘Curtis’s Botanical Magazine’ I am likewise indebted for many hints and for permission to copy parts of some of their plates of the flowering plants of those districts of South America which are frequented by Humming-Birds. In case the merits of this work should be unknown to some of my readers, I mention that it is generally acknowledged its production reflects equal credit upon its Editors Sir William Jackson Hooker and Mr. Smith, the artist Mr. Fitch, and its publisher Mr. Lovell Reeve.

Numerous attempts had been made at various times to give something like a representation of the glittering hues with which this group of birds are adorned; but all had ended in disappointment, and the subject seemed so fraught with difficulty that I at first despaired of its accomplishment. I determined, however, to make the trial, and, after a series of lengthened, troublesome, and costly experiments, I have, I trust, partially, if not completely succeeded. Similar attempts were simultaneously carried on in America by W. M. L. Baily, Esq., who with the utmost kindness and liberality explained his process to me; and although I have not adopted it, I must in fairness admit that it is fully as successful as my own. I shall always entertain a lively remembrance of the pleasant day I spent with this gentleman in Philadelphia. It was in his company that I first saw a living Humming-Bird, in a garden which has become classic ground to all true Americans, from the pleasing associations connected with its former possessor, the great and good Bartram, and from its having been one of the haunts of the celebrated Wilson, than whom no one has written more pleasingly on the only species of this family which inhabits that part of North America, the Trochilus Colubris.

It now becomes my pleasing duty to place on record the very valuable assistance in the production of this work with which I have been favoured by the Directors of Public Museums and private individuals. Of these the foremost on the list must be the names of M. Jules Bourcier, of Paris, and Thomas Reeves, Esq., of Rio de Janeiro. Both these gentlemen have made extensive collections of specimens, and had numerous drawings prepared for the express purpose of publishing works on the subject, all of which with the utmost liberality have been placed at my disposal. To M. Bourcier, than whom no one possesses a more intimate acquaintance with this group of birds, I am likewise indebted for much valuable information, which has been at all times rendered with the utmost willingness and promptitude. My thanks are also due to the Trustees and the Keepers of the Zoological Department of the British Museum; to the Director of the Museum of the Jardin des Plantes at Paris; to Dr. Peters, Director of the Royal Zoological Museum of Berlin; to George Ure Skinner, Esq., long resident in Guatemala; to that intrepid traveller M. Warszewicz, now Director of the Botanic Garden at Cracow, who, during his travels in South America, brought to light more new species of Humming-Birds than any other explorer; to my friends Sir William Jardine, Bart.; W. C. L. Martin, Esq.; T. C. Eyton, Esq.,; Dr. Sclater; Alfred Newton, Esq.; M. Edouard Verreaux, of Paris; G. N. Lawrence, Esq., of New York; and Dr. Baird, of Washington; to Edward Wilson, Esq., to Sigismund Rucker, Esq., F. Taylor, Esq., of Liverpool; William Tucker, Esq., of Trinidad; and to T. F. Erskine, Esq., for the readiness with which they have at all times favoured me with both information and the loan of specimens. To Miss Loddiges and her brother Mr. Conrad Loddiges, I am under considerable obligations for the facility of access they have always afforded me to the very valuable collection formed by their lamented father. Nor must the name of another valued friend—the late Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte—be omitted from the list of those who took great interest in the present work, he having at all times rendered me that scientific assistance which his vast and varied talents so well enabled him to afford.

September 1, 1861.


The questions have often been asked, whence is the term Humming-Bird derived, and why is the bird so called.

I may state in reply that, owing to the rapid movement of the wings of most of the members of this group, but especially of the smaller species, a vibratory or humming sound is produced. while the bird is in the air, which may be heard at the distance of several yards, and that it is from this circumstance that the trivial name by which these birds are known in England has arisen. In France they are recognized by the terms Oiseau-mouche and Colibri; in Germany their common appellation is Koibri; by the Dutch they are called Kolibrielje; by the Spaniards Pica flores and Tomino; by the Portuguese Tomeneco and Beija-flor; in the neighbourhood of Xalapa they are known by the names of Chupa-rosa and Chupa-myrta, Rose-sucker and Myrtle-sucker; by the Creoles of the Antilles and Guiana they are known by the names of Murmures, Bourdons, and Frou-frous. From the Mexicans, Peruvians, and other nations of South America they have received various appellations, such as Ourissia, huitzitzil, tzitztototl, guanumbi, quinti or quintiut, quindé, visicilin, pigda, and courbiri,—all terms of a metaphorical character, signifying “rays of the sun,” “tresses of the day-star,” “murmuring birds,” &c.


Linnæus applied to the whole of the species known to him the generic appellation of Trochilus (a name given by the ancients to some fabulous little bird), whence is derived the family designation Trochilidæ. By Brisson, a contemporary of Linnæus, the terms Polytmus and Mellisuga were proposed; but with respect to some of the thirty-six species described by him, as well as by the older writers such as Seba, Marcgrave, Willughby, Ray, &c., it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine what they really were. We may, however, fairly commence our investigations with a greater chance of accuracy from the date when the great Swedish naturalist commenced his labours. By him twenty-two species were enumerated in the twelfth edition of his ‘Systema Naturæ.’ In Gmelin’s, or the thirteenth edition, the list is increased to sixty-seven. Of these I have determined about two-thirds; the remainder must for ever continue involved in mystery, and their names be erased from our scientific works—the descriptions being extremely meagre, and the synonyms occasionally referring to figures of very different species. In some instances, even, the species are attributed to countries where Humming-Birds are never found; while in others, such as that of the Harlequin Humming-Bird, the characters are taken from a plate which must have been drawn from imagination and not from any real specimen. These are a few of the difficulties which a naturalist has to encounter when access to the types cannot be obtained. I think it necessary to make this statement as a reason for not quoting all the names given by the older authors. Wherever they could be with certainty determined, they have been quoted under the species to which they are believed to refer. The numerous divisions which more modern writers have deemed it necessary to propose will be given in the proper place.


Latham, who added little or nothing to the previously recorded notices of this group of birds, enumerated sixty-five species in his ‘Index Ornithologicus,’ published in 1790, and ninety-five in the third volume of his ‘General History of Birds,’ which appeared in 1822. Of these about two-thirds are real species; the remainder cannot be determined, as they are so indefinitely described that it is impossible to ascertain whether they are species or not.

Audebert and Vieillot

In 1802 the ‘Oiseaux dorés,’ the great French work of Audebert and Vieillot, was given to the world. In it, besides figures of all the Jacamars and Promerops then known, were included seventy plates of Humming-Birds. These plates represent species which were then rare, but are now extremely common, and which, although not so numerous as those contained in the later work of Latham, had the advantage of being illustrated in a manner which was intended to convey some idea of their brilliancy. In most instances the species may be recognized; in others they are doubtful. Independently of the illustrations above-mentioned, these authors attempted to explain the laws which produce the splendid colouring of certain parts of these beautiful birds, and have given a plate illustrative of their views on the subject.

Bonnaterre and Vieillot

In 1823 appeared the second part of the ornithological portion of the ‘Tableau Encyclopédique et Méthodique des Trois Règrtes de la Nature,’ by Bonnaterre and Vieillot, with an enumeration of ninety-four species of Humming-Birds, but no additional information as to their habits and manners. A few years later (between 1829 and 1833) appeared M. Lesson’s well-known works, the ‘Histoire Naturelle des Oiseauxmouches,’ ‘Histoire Naturelle des Colibris,’ and ‘Les Trochilidées,’—publications which added considerably to our previous knowledge of the group, although they enumerate no more than 110 species. How little progress, then, had been made towards an intimate acquaintance with these lovely birds between the date of the twelfth edition of the ‘Systema Naturæ’ and that of the last-named publications, a period of more than seventy years!


If the illustrious Humboldt paid no very marked attention to the Trochilidæ, he must have noticed many of the fine species lately brought to light; and it is therefore somewhat surprising that he should have been so remarkably silent respecting them when writing the ‘Personal Narrative’ of his travels in the new world. It is to him and to his associate Bonpland, however, that I consider we are indebted for our acquaintance with many of them; for the perusal of the interesting account of their enterprising travels has doubtless created a desire in others to follow in their footsteps. Thus succeeding travellers, who have not been slow to perceive how wonderfully different are the productions of the great Andean ranges from those of the other parts of South America, have ever been active in forming and transmitting to Europe collections in nearly every department of science; and no objects have been more assiduously sought for than the flying gems which constantly greeted them at every turn and must have been always before their eyes. Among the most eminent travellers who have succeeded Humboldt are D’Orbigny, Schomburgk, Tschudi, Castlenau, Burmeister, and others, who, with more recent but less-known explorers, have added so largely to our knowledge of the Trochilidæ. Both Frenchmen and Belgians have proceeded to South America to procure supplies of these birds;»and dealers from those countries have established themselves in some of the cities of that part of the world for the like purpose. From Sta. Fé de Bogota alone many thousands of skins are annually sent to London and Paris, and sold as ornaments for the drawing-room and for scientific purposes. The Indians readily learn the art of skinning and preserving, and, as a certain amount of emolument attends the collecting of these objects, they often traverse great distances for the purpose of procuring them; districts more than a hundred miles stretching away from each side of Bogota are strictly searched; and hence it is that from these places alone we receive not less than seventy species of this family of birds. In like manner the residents of many parts of Brazil employ their slaves in collecting, skinning, and preserving them for the European market; and many thousands are annually sent from Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Pernambuco. They also supply the inmates of the convents with many of the more richly coloured species for the manufacture of artificial-feather flowers. How numerous, then, must these birds be in their native wilds, and how wonderfully must they keep in check the peculiar kind of insect life upon which they principally feed! doubtless, one of the objects for which they were designed. After these few cursory remarks, I proceed to givea general history of the group, the range and distribution of the species, and such additional information as I have acquired during the course of my labours.


“The first mention which is made of the Humming-Birds,” says M. Lesson, “in the narratives of the adventurers who proceeded to America, not with the design of studying its natural productions, but for the discovery of gold, dates from 1558, and is to be found in ‘Les Singularités de la France Antarctique’ (Brazil) of André Thévet and Jean de Léry, companions of La Villegaignon, who attempted in 1555 to found a French colony there; but these superficial accounts would not have unfolded their natural history, had not the old naturalists who published their observations at the commencement of the seventeenth century taken care to make them better known; and we find some good accounts of them in the voluminous compilation of Nieremberg, in the collection of fragments from the great works of Hernandez or Fernandez, and in those of Piso. Ximenez, Acosta, Gomara, Marcgrave, Garcilasso, and Dutertre often mention these birds, but their remarks are so superficial that it would be of little use to quote them now. Towards the end of the same century Sir Hans Sloane, Catesby, Edwards, Brown, Father Labat, Plumier, Louis Feuillée, and Rochefort gave tolerably complete figures and descriptions of some of the species; but it was not until the commencement of the eighteenth century that we became better acquainted with their natural history.”


It will be seen that little was really known respecting the Humming-Birds even at the end of the career of the great Linnæus.

From Captain Cook both Pennant and Linnzus became aware that a species was found as far north as Nootka Sound, while every voyager to the eastern shores of North America brought tidings of its representative in the Trochilus Colubris. Jamaica, St. Domingo, and the smaller islands of the West Indies furnished a fair quota of species inhabiting those countries; and correspondents were speedily established by Sloane, Brown, Edwards, and Catesby in Hispaniola, Demerara, and Brazil. Throughout all these regions the Humming-Birds, and indeed their other zoological productions, were then but partially, and only partially, known. The great primeval forests of Brazil, the vast palm-covered districts of the deltas of the Amazon and the Orinoco, the fertile flats and savannahs of Demerara, the luxuriant and beautiful region of Xalapa (the realm of perpetual spring) and other parts of Mexico, were literally untrodden ground by the ornithological collector. Up to this time the vast provinces of the New World had only been skirted; all within was virgin land, wherein even the explorer had scarcely placed a foot, and where the only human inhabitants were the wild children of nature—the Botacudos and other tribes of South American Indians. If the country glanced at in the foregoing remarks provided the naturalists of the days of Linnæus with ample materials for study and investigation, how much greater would have been their amazement and delight had exploration made them acquainted with the hidden treasures of the great Andean ranges, which stretch along the entire country, from the Rocky Mountains on the north to near Cape Horn on the south. Along the whole line of this great backbone, as it were, of America, at remarkably short intervals, occur species of this family of birds of the greatest beauty and interest, which are not only specifically but generically distinct from each other. Whole groups of them, remarkable for their singularity, have become known to us from the inquiries and explorations of later travellers; and, abundant as the species may be towards the northern and southern portions of the great chain of mountains, they vastly increase as we approach the equator. These equatorial regions teem with species, and even genera, which are not found elsewhere. Between the snow-line of the summits of the towering volcanos and their bases, many zones of temperature occur, each of which has its own especial animal and vegetable life. The alpine region has its particular flora, accompanied by insects especially adapted to such situations; and attendant upon these are peculiar forms of Humming-Birds, which never descend to the hot valleys, and scarcely even to the cooler and more temperate paramos. Many of the highest cones of extinct and of existing volcanos have their own faunas and floras; even in the interior walls of ancient craters, wherever vegetation has gained a footing, some species of Humming-Birds have there, and there only, been as yet discovered. It is the exploration of such situations that has led to the acquisition of so many additional species of this family of birds, which now reach to more than 400 in number.

It might be thought by some persons that 400 species of birds so diminutive in size, and of one family, could scarcely be distinguished from each other; but any one who studies the subject will soon perceive that such is not the case. Even the females, which assimilate more closely to each other than the males, can be separated with perfect certainty; nay, even a tail-feather will be sufficient for a person well-versed in the subject to say to what genus and species the bird from which it has been taken belongs. I mention this fact to show that what we designate a species has really distinctive and constant characters; and in the whole of my experience, with many thousands of Humming-Birds passing through my hands, I have never observed an instance of any variation which would lead me to suppose that it was the result of a union of two species. I write this without bias, one way or the other, as to the question of the origin of species. I am desirous of representing nature in her wonderful ways as she presents herself to my attention at the close of my work, after a period of twelve years of incessant labour, and not less than twenty years of interesting study. I am, of course, here speaking of the special object of my own studies—the Humming-Birds.

It is somewhat remarkable that any persons living in the present enlightened age should persist in asserting that Humming-Birds are found in India and Africa. Yet there are many who believe that such is the case. Even in a work but recently published, it is stated that Humming-Birds and Toucans are both found in the last-mentioned country; and I was once brought into a rather stormy altercation with a gentleman who asserted that the Humming-Bird was found in England, and that he had seen it fly in Devonshire. Now the object seen in Devonshire was the insect called the Humming-Bird Moth, Macroglossa stellarum; and the birds supposed to belong to this family by residents and travellers in India and Africa are of a totally different group—the Nectariniidæ or Sun-Birds. These latter birds have no relationship to the Trochilidæ; they are not even representatives of them in the countries alluded to; and their only points of resemblance consist in their diminutive size and the showy character of their plumage. Let it be understood, then, once for all, that the Humming-Birds are confined to America and its islands (that is, the West Indies in the Atlantic, and Chiloe and Juan Fernandez in the Pacific; none have as yet been found in the Galapagos). The Selasphorus rufus goes as far north as Sitka. Kotzebue informs us that it is found in summer as high as the sixty-first parallel on the Pacific coast; while, on the antarctic end of the continent, Captain King observed the Eustephanus galeritus flitting about among the Fuchsias of Tierra del Fuego in a snow-storm. Both these species, however, are migrants,—the northern bird retiring, as autumn approaches, to the more temperate climate of Mexico, while the other wends its way up to the warmer regions of Bolivia and Peru. The migration of these birds is, of course, performed at directly opposite periods. Both the Selasphorus rufus and the Trochilus Colubris spend the summer in high northern latitudes; but the former always proceeds along the western, and the latter along the eastern parts of the country: the T. Colubris even extends its range as far as the fifty-seventh parallel, where it was observed by Sir John Richardson. Although these and some other species pass over vast extents of country, I do not believe that they are capable of long-continued flights: that is, I question their power of crossing seas, or more than from one island to another; for although we know that the two birds above-mentioned pass over many degrees of latitude in their migrations, I believe that these journeys are performed in a series of comparatively short stages, and always by land, and that the whole of their movements are more or less influenced by the progress of the sun north or south as the case may be.

North America, then, may be said to have two Humming-Birds—a western and an eastern species. It is true that Audubon has mentioned two others in his great work (the Lampornis Mango and Calypte Annæ), and states that the former was found at Key West in East Florida. Since then, however, I believe no other example has been discovered there; and one can scarcely understand the occurrence of the bird in that part of America, since it is a native of countries and islands lying so much further south.

Leaving North America, and proceeding south, we begin to meet with several other species, which rarely extend their range to the north—viz. the Calypte Annæ, C. Costæ, Selasphorus platycercus, Trochilus Alexandri, and Calothorax Calliope. These birds are also migratory, but their range is much less extensive than that of the two species previously mentioned. As we advance in this direction, Humming-Birds become extremely numerous, and, as regards both genera and species, continue to increase in the more southern country of Guatemala, where every variety of climate is to be found. The forest-clad mountains of Vera Paz appear to afford a winter retreat to many of the northern species, as the regions contiguous to the Atlas-range in Africa do to the numerous little warblers of this country and the continent of Europe. Besides these migrants, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica have species which are either stationary, or merely change their quarters in accordance with the flowering-season of the trees on which they seek their food, moving east and west or vice versâ according to circumstances. The countries further south, or those lying between Guatemala and Panama, appear to have a bird-fauna almost peculiar to themselves; for it is seldom that the species inhabiting Costa Rica and Veragua extend their range to the northward, neither are they often found in the more southern country of New Granada.

It is in the last-mentioned country, New Granada, that some of the finest of the Trochilidæ are found,—its towering mountains having species peculiar to themselves, while its extensive paramos are teuanted by forms not found elsewhere. On the principal ranges of the Andes, species exist which do not occur on the lower elevations situated more to the eastward. These ranges are the sources of numerous rivers, some of which have a northerly course, such as the Atrato, Cauca, and the great Magdalena, which debouch into the Caribbean Sea, and the river Zulia, which empties itself into the Lake of Maracaybo. Some of the very finest species yet discovered were collected near the town of Pamplona, which is situated on the banks of the last-mentioned river. The country round Antioquia, situated on the lower, and Popayan on the upper part of the Cauca, appear also to be very rich in natural productions, and particularly so in Humming-Birds. It is, however, on the paramos which surround Bogota, and on the luxuriantly-clad sides of the valleys through which flows the main stream of the Magdalena, that the greatest number of species have been discovered. Bogota, the capital of this district, has for a long time been the centre whence collections have been transmitted to Europe and the United States. The Indians have been initiated into the modes of preparing these lovely objects; and as gain and excitement have thus gone hand in hand, this part of America may be said to have been thoroughly ransacked, and I expect that but few novelties remain to be discovered therein. Now as most of the productions that have yet reached us from Antioquia and Pamplona, two districts lying in about the same parallel of latitude on either side the great valley of the Magdalena, are quite distinct and different from those of Bogota, we may safely infer that, if they were as closely searched, many new species would be found. The country of the Caraccas and Cumana have Humming-Birds which partake less of the characters of the mountain species, and assimilate more closely to those of the Guianas and Northern Brazil. It will be seen, I think, from what I have here said, that the species of Humming-Birds increase in numbers as we proceed towards the equator; that most of them are confined to countries having peculiar physical characters; and that those of New Granada differ considerably from the Humming-Birds of Veragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. I have observed an equally marked difference in the species which inhabit the high lands giving rise to the rivers which run eastward; I mean the many tributaries of the Napo, the Caqueta or Japura, and the Amazon.

From the eastern side of Chimborazo flow many streams which ultimately find their way into the Amazon; and however numerous the species found in the elevated districts of New Granada may be, I believe that when the dense and luxuriant forests bordering these well-watered lands are fully investigated, the species inhabiting them will be found far to exceed in number those of every other district. Even the snowy Chimborazo may be said to be inhabited by Humming-birds: certain it is that the Oreotrochilus Chimborazo lives upon it just below the line of perpetual congelation, some of my specimens of this bird killed by M. Bourcier bearing on the attached labels an elevation of 16,000 feet; and Mr. Fraser, I believe, killed others in an equally elevated region. Here, then, is a bird which encounters the cold blasts of these lofty situations with impunity, dwelling in a world of almost perpetual sleet, hail, and rain, and there feeding upon the insects which resort to the Chuguiraga insignis and other flowering plants peculiar to the situation. These truly alpine birds have always a great charm with me; and as the species just mentioned is especially beautiful, it is of course a great favourite. Besides Chimborazo, there exist many other cones of but little less elevation, such as Pichincha, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe, which, strange to say, are reported to be frequented by species peculiar to each; and if this be the case, how many summits as yet untrodden may reveal forms at present unknown to us? Now what I have said with regard to the gradual increase of Humming-Bird life from the north to the equator may be equally said of their increase towards the same line from the south. The species there found, although quite different from those of the north, perform precisely the same functions, are subject to the same migratory movements, &c.

To the southward of the equator, however, the species appear to be far less numerous. And it could not be expected but that such would be the case when we consider the particular character of the country,— the dry and sterile plains of Peru, the extensive pampas of La Plata, &c., being all unsuited to insect and therefore to Humming-Bird life, and a diminution in their numbers the natural result. But this paucity in numbers would seem to be compensated for, by the beauty of the individuals. Peru and Bolivia are the cradles of the splendid comet-tailed species of the genus Cometes, the Lesbiæ, Diphlogænæ, the delicate birds known as Thaumasturæ, &c. These countries produce also the largest Humming-Bird yet known, the Patagona gigas, which with an Oreotrochilus and a Eustephanus are all the species known to me from the lengthened country of Chili. The little island called Chiloe, characterized by great humidity, is inhabited by the common Chilian species last mentioned; while the celebrated island of Juan Fernandez, over 300 miles from the mainland, is tenanted by three kinds, of which two are so distinct from all others known, that they cannot for a moment be confounded with any of them. The three species, in fact, which people this solitary spot in the wide Pacific are very different from each other; and I may mention that nothing like a cross or intermixture has ever been observed, an event that might have been expected to occur here, if ever it does among animals living in a state of nature. Strange to say, these beautiful creatures are almost the only examples of bird life existing on this remarkable island. The knowledge of the existence of these lovely flying gems gives an additional zest to the interest attached to the scene of the principal events in Defoe’s charming tale.

In the foregoing pages I have glanced at the species of Humming-Birds inhabiting the great range of mountains running north and south through many degrees of latitude on both sides of the equator. Whole genera of the Trochilidæ are found there, and there alone. In the high lands of Mexico, among others we find the peculiar genera Delattria, Selasphorus, and Calypte. On crossing the ribbon-like strip of land called the Isthmus of Panama, we enter upon a region of high lands bearing the genera Oxypogon, Lafresnaya, Bourcieria, Doryfera, Helianthea, Heliangelus, Eriocnemis, Lesbia, Cynanthus, Aglæactis, Metallura, Ramphomicron, and many others, none of which are found in the less-elevated countries of Brazil, the Guianas, or the West Indian Islands. It is true that these countries, particularly Brazil, possess forms of HummingBirds which are now and then feebly represented in the Andes; but these cases are quite exceptional. When we leave the Andes we bid adieu to the finest, the largest, and the most gorgeously attired species. Other beautiful kinds do here and there exist in Brazil, such as the Chrysolampis moschitus, the Topaza Pella, and the Lophornithes; but the greater number are comparatively small and inconspicuous. Of the members of the genus Phaëthornis, a group of Humming-Birds, popularly known by the name of Hermits, from their frequenting the darkest and most retired parts of the forest, three-fourths are natives of Brazil. The great forest-covered delta of the Amazon, where palms are numerous, seems to be particularly unfavourable to the Trochilidæ, since from Para to Ega there are scarcely ten species of the family to be met with.

In this cursory glance at the distribution of this family of Birds, those frequenting the West Indian Islands have yet to be noticed; and here not only do we find some peculiar to those islands as a whole, but in each of them, with but very few exceptions, there are species and even genera which are not found in the Andes, the other islands, or the more contiguous flat parts of the South American Continent. Cuba has at least three, one of which is a most lovely little bird. The principal island of the Bahaman group is in like manner favoured with a charming Calothorax, which Dr. Bryant tells us flies in great numbers round the town of Nassau; yet the bird does not, I believe, inhabit any of the other islands or the mainland.

Jamaica possesses three, which are all quite distinct, and so widely different from every other, that it is a perfect mystery to the naturalist how they first obtained a footing there. Nothing like interbreeding between two species appears to occur in this island; if such were the case, we could not but be aware of the fact, since we have not only been for many years in the habit of receiving hundreds of birds from Jamaica, but this island has had the advantage of a naturalist, Mr. Gosse, who has most closely observed the birds resident there. St. Domingo has two species, differing from those of Jamaica. This law with respect to the Humming-Bird inhabitants of the West Indian and Leeward Islands, is. equally carried out in the necklace-like string of the Windwards; but when we arrive at the island of Trinidad, the species become much more numerous and partake of the character of those which inhabit the mainland—the opposite shores of Venezuela.

It may be asked, what is our present knowledge of the existing species of Humming-Birds, and if there may not be others to be discovered in the great primeval forests of the western and other parts of the vast continent of the new world. My reply is that, in all probability, many more than are known to us do exist, and that a very lengthened period must elapse before we shall acquire anything like a perfect knowledge of the group. Whatever I may have done towards the elucidation of the subject, I must only be regarded as a pioneer for those who, in future ages, will render our acquaintance with this family of birds so much more complete than it is at the present time.

The regions of South America whose productions are least known are Costa Rica, Veragua, Panama, the sea-bord between Carthagena and Guayaquil, the forests of La Paz and other parts of Bolivia, the whole of the eastern slopes of the Andes bordering Peru and Ecuador, and the western portion of Brazil. All these countries will doubtless furnish new kinds of Humming-Birds when the explorer shall extend his researches into their unknown recesses. We may feel fully convinced that such will be the case from the circumstance of single individuals in a youthful or imperfect state, which we cannot identify as belonging to any known species, occasionally occurring in the great collections sent from time to time to Europe. My own collection contains several examples of this kind, which will doubtless at some future day prove to belong to undescribed species. For more than twenty long years have I been sending the most earnest entreaties, accompanied with drawings, to my correspondents in Peru and Ecuador for additional examples of that truly wonderful bird the Loddigesia mirabilis. These entreaties have been backed by the offers of large sums of money to any person who would procure them; but up to the present moment no second example has been obtained. Probably the single individual killed by Mr. Matthews in the neighbourhood of Chachapoyas was one which had accidentally strayed beyond the area in which the species usually dwells, and which has not yet been discovered. That it may be a nocturnal bird has sometimes suggested itself to my mind, and that this may be the reason why it has not since been seen. Those of my readers who are not acquainted with this most wonderful member of the Trochilidee will do well to refer to the plate, in which a correct representation of it is given by the masterly hand of Mr. Richter.


The preceding remarks must, I think, have given the reader a general idea of the countries inhabited by the members of the great family of Humming-Birds; it now becomes necessary to speak of their peculiar structure, and the place they appear to occupy in the Class Aves.

By systematists they have been bandied about from one group to another: by some they have been associated with the Sun-Birds (Nectariniæ); by others with the Cypselinæ, Piciniæ, Sittinæ, Certhinæ, &c.


Ornithologists of the present day consider them to be more intimately allied to the true Swifts than to any other group of birds.

This view of the subject is supported by the fact of the Humming-Birds, like the Swifts, having most ample wings, and a bony structure very closely assimilating; and this alliance is still further exemplified in some parts of their nidification, the number and ‘colour of their eggs, &c. It is not to be expected that, with this subject before me for so many years, I should have been inattentive to the consideration of the place these birds should occupy in our attempts at a natural arrangement; and while I admit that they are somewhat allied to the Swifts, they are so essentially distinct from these and all other birds, that they might be separated into a distinct Order with quite as much (if not greater) propriety as the Pigeons when considered in relation to the Gallinaceous Birds. They have certain characters, dispositions, and modes of life which are not to be noticed in any other group of birds: their cylindrical bills, double-tubed tongues, enormously developed sternums, and corresponding pectoral muscles, rigid primaries (the first of which is the longest), and their diminutive feet separate them from all others. In the Swifts and Fissirostral birds generally, the sexes are alike in outward appearance; in the Humming-Birds they are in nearly every instance totally different in their colouring; in the former the young assume the livery of the adult before they leave the nest, while the contrary is the case with the Humming-Birds. How different, too, is the texture of the luminous feathers with which they are clothed; and vastly diversified in form as the tail is in the various genera, the number of feathers in the whole of them is invariably ten. In their disposition they are unlike birds, and approach more nearly to insects. Many of the species fearlessly approach almost within reach of the hand; and if they enter an open window, which curiosity may lead them to do, they may be chased and battled with round the apartment until they fall exhausted; and if then taken up by the hand, they almost immediately feed upon any sweet, or pump up any fluid, that may be offered them, without betraying either fear or resentment at their previous treatment. A Trochilus Colubris, captured for me by some friends at Washington (Baron Osten Sacken, Mr. Odo Russell, and his brother Mr. Arthur Russell), immediately afterwards partook of some saccharine food that was presented to it, and in two hours it pumped the fluid out of a little bottle whenever I offered it; and in this way it lived with me a constant companion for several days, travelling in a little thin gauzy bag distended by a slender piece of whalebone and suspended to a button of my coat. It was only necessary for me to take the little bottle from my pocket to induce it to thrust its spiny bill through the gauze, protrude its lengthened tongue down the neck of the bottle, and pump up the fluid until it was satiated; it would then retire to the bottom of its little home, preen its wing- and tail-feathers, and seem quite content.

The specimens I brought alive to this country were as docile and fearless as a great moth or any other insect would be under similar treatment. The little cage in which they lived was twelve inches long, by seven inches wide, and eight inches high. In this was placed a diminutive twig of a tree, and, suspended to the side, a glass phial which I daily supplied with saccharine matter in the form of sugar or honey and water, with the addition of the yolk of an unboiled egg. Upon this food they appeared to thrive and be happy during the voyage along the sea-bord of America and across the Atlantic, until they arrived within the influence of the climate of Europe. Off the western part of Ireland symptoms of drooping unmistakeaby exhibited themselves; but, although they never fully rallied, I, as before stated, succeeded in bringing one of them alive to London,where it died on the second day after its arrival at my house. The vessel in which I made the passage took a northerly course, which carried us over the banks of Newfoundland; and although the cold was rather severe during part of the time, the only effect it appeared to have upon my little pets was to induce a kind of terpidity, from which, however, they were readily aroused by placing them in the sunshine, or in some warm situation, such as before a fire, in the bosom, &c. I do assure my readers that I have seen these birds cold and stiff, and to all appearance dead, and that from this state they were readily restored by a little attention and removal into light and heat, when they would “perk up,” flutter their little wings, and feast away upon their usual food as if in the best state of health.

Wings & flight

How wonderful must be the mechanism which sets in motion and sustains for so lengthened a time the vibratory movements of a Humming-Bird’s wings! To me their action appeared unlike anything of the kind I had ever seen before, and strongly reminded me of a piece of machinery acted upon by a powerful spring. I was particularly struck by this peculiarity in the flight, as it was exactly the opposite of what I expected. The bird does not usually glide through the air with the quick darting flight of a Swallow or Swift, but continues tremulously moving its wings while passing from flower to flower, or when taking a more distant flight over a high tree or across a river. When poised before any object, this action is so rapidly performed that it is impossible for the eye to follow each stroke, and a hazy semicircle of indistinctness on each side of the bird is all that is perceptible. “The wind produced by the wings of these little birds,” says Mr. Salvin, “appears to be very considerable; for I noticed that while an example of Cyanomyia cyanocephala which had flown into the room was hovering over a large piece of wool, the entire surface of the wool was violently agitated.” Although many short intermissions of rest are taken during the day, the bird may be said to live in air—an element in which it performs every kind of evolution with the utmost ease, frequently rising perpendicularly, flying backward, pirouetting or dancing off, as it were, from place to place, or from one part of a tree to another, sometimes descending, at others ascending; it often mounts up above the towering trees, and then shoots off like a little meteor at a right angle; at other times it quietly buzzes away among the little flowers near the ground; at one moment it is poised over a diminutive weed, at the next it is seen at a distance of forty yards, whither it has vanished with the quickness of thought. During the heat of the day the shady retreats beneath the trees are very frequently visited; in the morning and evening the sunny banks, the verandahs, and other exposed situations are more frequently resorted to.

The foregoing remarks are from personal observation of the habits of Trochilus Colubris; and I have been informed by Mr. Salvin and others that a similar action characterizes most of the species. I believe, however, that those members of the Trochilidæ which are furnished with more ample wings, such as the species of the genera Aglæactis, Ramphomicron, Pterophanes, and Patagona, have a very different mode of flight, move their wings with diminished rapidity, and pass much more slowly through the air. Mr. Darwin, when speaking of the Patagona gigas, says, “Like others of the family, it moves from place to place with a rapidity which may be compared to that of Syrphus among Diptera, and Sphinx among Moths; but whilst hovering over a flower it flaps its wings with a very slow and powerful movement, totally different from that vibratory one, common to most of the species, which produces the humming noise. I never saw any other bird, where the force of its wings appeared (as in a butterfly) so powerful in proportion to the weight of its body. When hovering by a flower, its tail is constantly expanded and shut like a fan, the body being kept in a nearly vertical position. This action appears to steady and support the bird, between the slow movements of its wings.”

In the intervals of flight, I believe that they not only rest in the ordinary way, but even pass some time in sleep; at least I found that this was the case with my living birds, and that from this state of partial torpor they were not easily aroused. In the morning and evening they were far more animated than at any other period of the day; and they would even perform their buzzing evolutions round their cage, and sip from their little bottle in the night-time, if a light was brought into the room. They usually sat in a moping position, with the bill in a line with the body, or slightly elevated, after the manner of the Kingfishers. I never saw them hang by their feet and sleep with their heads downwards—a position which I have been informed is sometimes assumed by Humming-Birds.

When we have compared the wings of Calliphlox amethystinus with those of Patagona gigas, we have noticed the two extremes of development in these organs; but many intermediate forms exist, and each modification has doubtless an influence on the mode and power of flight. I cannot leave the subject of the wings without alluding to the extraordinary development of the shafts of the primaries in the Campylopteri. The great dilatation of these feathers would lead one to suppose that they have an influence on the aérial movements of the birds; but, strange to say, this remarkable feature only occurs in the males; the females being entirely destitute of it. It might naturally be supposed that such a modification of so important an organ must be formed with an especial object. What, then, can he the particular use of the broad dilated shafts of these singularly and apparently awkwardly shaped wings? Generally the primaries and secondaries are of a sombre and uniform hue, while the shoulders or wing-coverts, in most instances, are of the same colour as the other parts of the body. There are, however, a few, but a very few exceptions to the rule; and I may mention the Eulampis jugularis and Pterophanes Temmincki as instances in point: both these birds have luminous wings, and must form very striking objects during flight; and, as I believe colour is seldom given without the intention of its being exhibited, there is doubtless something peculiar in the economy of these birds. The primaries and secondaries are in some instances stiff and rigid, while in others they are soft and yielding; some are broad, others narrow; they are always the same in number; and the first quill is constantly the longest, except in Aïthurus polytmus, where the second exceeds the first in length.


When we turn to the bill, we find this organ to be greatly diversified in form, and that each of these variations appears to be specially adapted for some given purpose; indeed, I have never seen the law of adaptation more beautifully exemplified than in the multiplied forms exhibited in the bills of the members of the various genera of this family of birds. A certain generic character runs through the whole of them: the gape in all cases is very small; and whether the bill be curved or straight, the upper mandible overlaps the under one on both sides, and thus forms an admirable protection for the delicate double-tubed tongue. If we examine the extraordinarily lengthened bill of Docemastes ensiferus and the short feeble bill of the Lesbia Gouldi, we see the extremes as regards the length of this organ; and we are not less astonished at the functions they are both intended to perform. The bill of the D. ensifer, which is more than five inches long, and which contains a tongue capable of being protruded nearly as far beyond its tip, is most admirably fitted for the exploration of the lengthened and pendent corollas of the Brugmansiæ; while the short-billed Lesbiæ cling to the upper portion of those flowers, pierce their bases, and with the delicate feelers at the extremities of the tongue, readily secure the insects which there abound. I have been assured by M. Bourcier that this is really a practice of the bird, and that it frequently resorts to this device for the purpose of gaining its insect food; but I suspect that, besides exploring the stalwart Brugmansiæ, a more delicate flora is the object for which its bill is especially formed. In no part of America are there so many tubular-flowered plants as among the Andes; and the greater number of the Humming-Birds found there have straight and lengthened bills, such as the members of the genera Helianthea, Bourcieria, Cœligena, etc. The arched bills of the Phaëthornithes are admirably adapted for securing the insects which resort to the leaves of trees, and upon which these birds are said to exist. But how much are we astonished when we examine the bill of Eutoxeres! and find this organ curved downwards beyond the extent of a semicircle, a form beautifully adapted for exploring the scale-covered stems of the larger palms.

Let us turn to another genus of this group—Grypus. Here the bill is not only armed with a strong hook at the end of the mandibles, but with a row of numerous and thickly set teeth. The G. nævius is said to frequent the borders of the great forests, and to gain its food from among the interstices of the bark of the palm trees. Both this bird and the Eutoxeres, as well as the Phaëthornithes, are said (and, I believe, with truth) to feed principally upon spiders; and we know that these are the food of the Grypus. All the members of the genus Ramphomicron are said to feed on insects which inhabit the alpine Floræ and their bill is well suited to the capture of the minute insects found in those elevated regions. In some instances the bill is perfectly wedge-shaped, as in Heliothrix; while in others it suddenly turns upwards, as in Avocettula. These forms are also adapted for some special purpose, of which, however, at present we are ignorant. Besides these, there are others whose bills approach somewhat to the form of the Flycatchers, as the Aïthurus. This bird, we know, frequently seizes insects on the wing; and so doubtless do many of the others. It will have been seen that all these forms of bill are well suited for the capture of insects; and, as might be supposed, insects constitute the principal food of the Humming-Bird; but that liquid honey, the pollen, and other saccharine parts of flowers are also partaken of, is evident from the double tubular tongue with which all the species are provided. Besides this, they readily and greedily accept this kind of food when offered to them in a state of captivity, or when the corollas of a bouquet of flowers placed in a window are filled with sugar to entice them to approach; and from my own experience I know that they have been kept in captivity for several months upon this kind of food.


Connected intimately with the mode of flight is the form and structure of the tail; and in no group of birds is this organ more varied; in some species it is four times the length of the body, in others it is so extremely short as to be entirely hidden by the coverts. As cases in point I may mention Lesbia Amaryllis and Calothorax micrurus. Every Humming-Bird, however, has ten tail-feathers, and no more. I am aware that this number is not apparent in some of the smaller fork-tailed species, the two centre-feathers being so exceedingly minute as to be almost obsvlete; but if a careful examination be made, that number will be found. I may instance Thaumastura Coræ, Doricha enicura, and Myrtis Fanniæ.

The tail appears to be, and doubtless is, a very important organ in all the aërial movements of the Trochilidæ; and accordingly we find very great variations in its form among the many different genera of which the family is composed. In Cometes and Lesbia, the forked character is carried to its maximum, while its minimum is seen in Calothorax, Acestrura, and the allied groups. The tails of all the members of the two former and many other genera are of this form; while in others it is only seen in a single species of a group, all the other members of which have rounded, square, or cuneate tails. As a case in point I may cite Eupetomena macroura, among the Campylopteri, which may be regarded as the aérial type of its own particular group. Next to this we may notice the species with feathers terminating in spatules, such as Loddigesia, Spathura, etc. I was informed by the late Mr. Dyson that the flight of these birds presents a marked difference from that of other Humming-Birds, and that their appearance in the air is most singular,— the tail being not only constantly opened and shut, but the spatules always in motion, particularly when the bird is poising over a flower; and if this be really true, what an extraordinary appearance must the Loddigesia mirabilis present during its evolutions! But we cannot attempt to describe it; the discovery of a second example, and the peculiarity of its flight, must be left for future historians to make known to us.

In some few instances, such as Juliamyia typica and Sphenoproctus Pampa, the tails are cuneate; but this form is quite exceptional, if we exclude the Phaëthornithes and Eutoxeres, in which this is the prevailing form. Besides the groups with forked or cuneate tails, there are others in which this organ is square or rounded, as in the Florisugæ and Metalluræ. The reverse of the spatulate form occurs in some species, such as the members of the genus Gouldia, in which the tip of the outer tail-feathers terminates in thread-like filaments. The citation of one more will be sufficient to show how widely different is the form of this organ among the various genera. The outer feathers of the Oreotrochili are narrow, rigid, and turned inwards: this calliper-like form one might suppose would assist, in combination with the lengthened hind toe and claw, in supporting the bird on the sides of rocks; and we find that this is really the case; for Mr. Fraser informs me that he has seen several of the Oreotrochilus Pichincha clinging, half-benumbed with cold, on a ledge of rocks during one of the frequent snow-storms which occur on Pichincha. Quinarians would pronounce this to be the scansorial type among Humming-Birds. Now I think we may fairly infer that many of the other structures above alluded to are equally adapted for some peculiar purpose; yet there must be exceptions to this hypothesis, since the structure of the caudal feathers is in many instances totally different in the two sexes of the same species.

Legs & feet

Nothing has yet been said respecting the legs and feet. Diminutive as they are, they will be found to be very diversified. In some instances the tarsi are bare, in others they are thickly clothed, as in the Eriocnemides; in some the toes are very diminutive, and are furnished with equally small, rounded nails; in others all the toes, particularly the hinder one, are greatly developed and armed with long, curved, and extremely sharp, spine-like claws. This latter form is admirably adapted for clinging to the petals of flowers, a habit common to many members of the family, which not only settle upon, but thrust their spiny bills through the bell-shaped flowers. The power these little birds possess of clinging to the branches is very remarkable; they hang on with their little feet and hooked claws like bats, with such pertinacity that I was often fearful of dislocating the legs of my living birds when attempting to remove them from their perch.

I may mention here, although somewhat out of place, that the skins of Pterophanes Temmincki have a strong musky smell, very similar to that exhaled by the Petrels. I consider this merely a coincidence; for although I am aware that many species of Humming-Birds fly close to the surface of the water, they are merely hawking for insects among the aquatic plants peculiar to such situations.

It is the great diversity of forms in this family of birds which renders the study of them so very interesting. If these little objects were magnified to the size of Eagles, their structural differences would stand out in very bold relief, and the many marked generic distinctions they present would be far more clearly perceptible.


The preceding remarks have reference to such points of structure as may be considered to have an influence on the well-being of the birds. I shall now say a few words on those parts of the plumage which apparently are given for the purpose of ornament only:—the crests of Cephalepis and Orthorhynchus; the beards of Ramphomicron and Oxypogon; the ear-tufts of Petasophora and Heliothrix; the elegant appendages to the neck of the Lophornithes; the regular plume-like under tail-coverts of Chalybura, which in their structure and snowy whiteness strongly remind one of the corresponding feathers of the Marabou Stork, &c.

The members of most of the genera have certain parts of their plumage fantastically decorated; and in many instances most resplendent in colour. My own opinion is, that this gorgeous colouring of the Humming-Birds has been given for the mere purpose of ornament, and for no other purpose of special adaptation in their mode of life—in other words, that ornament and beauty merely as such was the end proposed—especially when we remember that the plumage of Humming-Birds seems to follow a general rule in the subordination and contrast with which the colours are arranged. These extraordinary developments are nearly always confined to the male, and are, doubtless, bestowed upon these little gems as a gorgeous train is given to the Peacock, beautiful markings to the Polyplectron, &c. I know of no others but the two species of the genus Cephalepis in which a single feather is made to serve the purpose of ornament. In all other instances the feathers are disposed in pairs, or in equal number on either side of the head or body, as the case may be; but in both these species the crest terminates in a single plume, which greatly adds to the elegance of the slender topping. How splendid are the spangles which deck the neck-plumes of the Lophornithes! and how well do the blue ear-tufts of the Petasophoræ harmonize with the surrounding green of the neck! The genera Oxypogon and Ramphomicron may be cited as singular instances of ornamentation; for they are both bearded and crested. Independently of these extra-developed portions of the plumage, certain parts of the body are gorgeously coloured; and here, again, some curious features are observable. In very many instances the crowns are truly resplendent, as in Heliodoxa; while in Helianthea the forehead only is decorated, with a star brighter than Venus, the queen of planets.

All the members of the genus Heliangelus are remarkable for their beautiful gorgets, succeeded by a crescent of white separating it from the green of the under-surface. Some species of the Eriocnemides, beside their thickly clothed tarsi, have rich and luminous upper tail-coverts; while others, such as the Eriocnemis Alinæ, have the under tail-coverts unsurpassingly brilliant and beautiful. The members of the genus Augastes are conspicuous for the shining, metal-like masks with which their faces are adorned; while, differing from all these, the Aglæactines have the lower part of their backs clothed in armour-like feathers, the brilliancy of which must be seen to be understood, but which, strange to say, is only apparent when viewed from behind; for if looked at in the direction of the feather, none of these hues are perceptible. Many more instances besides these might be mentioned; but a reference to the plates on which they are represented, or, still better, the birds themselves, will give a more correct idea of these remarkable colourings than can be conveyed by any description.

Before leaving the subject of extra development, I may mention that I often find it carried to a greater extent in some one species of a genus than in the others. I will give an example of what I here intend, by reference to what is observable in another family of birds, the Trogondæ. Here the extra development of the upper tail-coverts which occurs in members of the genus Pharomacrus commences in the P. pavoninus, increases in the P. Antissianus, and extends beyond the tail in P. auriceps; but no species with upper tailcoverts of intermediate length between those of the last-mentioned species and the immensely long plumes of P. paradiseus appears to exist. In like manner, among the Andean Humming-Birds there is a tendency to a gradual increase in the length of the bill, to the extent of two or two and a half inches; but no species has yet been seen in which that organ is intermediate between that length and the extraordinarily developed bill of Docimastes, which measures at least five inches. A similar fact is also observable with respect to the spatules in the Spathuræ.

Apart from developement, I observe that in the Humming-Birds, as in some other groups to which I have paid particular attention, the species of one genus are much more numerous than those of others, and that, whenever this is the case, the genus usually comprises many closely allied species.


Among the most pleasing recollections of our youthful days is that of a birds’ nest. Where is the person who has lived in the country and paid any attention to natural history, that does not recollect that of the Hedge-Accentor (Accentor modularis) with its beautiful blue eggs; or has he ever ceased to wonder at the surprising construction of the nest of the Bottle-Tit (Mecistura caudata)? their domestic architecture is indeed among the most interesting of the many singular features in the economy of birds. And how truly wonderful are some of the nests of the Humming-Birds! In form and size they vary as much as the different structure of the birds would lead us to expect, and a similar difference occurs in the situations in which they are placed. Some of these cradles are not larger than the half of a walnut-shell, and these coracleshaped structure are among the neatest and most beautiful. The members of the genus Trochilus and their allies expend the greatest ingenuity, not so much in their construction as in the lavish decoration of their outer walls; with the utmost taste do these birds instinctively fasten thereon beautiful pieces of flat lichen, the larger pieces in the middle, and the smaller on the part attached to the branch. It is a question among ornithologists whether these adornments are fixed on by a glutinous secretion from the bird, or by the invisible webs of some of the smaller kinds of spiders; my own belief is, that the latter is the means employed. Now and then a pretty feather is intertwined or fastened to the outer side, the stem being always so placed that the feather stands out beyond the surface. These little cup-shaped nests are frequently placed on the bifurcation of the horizontal part of a branch near the ground, and at other times higher up towards the summit. Quite the reverse of this kind of nest are those built by the Phaëthornithes: these latter are generally very frail structures, woven round and attached to the side of a drooping palm-leaf, very frequently overhanging water. Such a nest is figured in my plate of P. Eurynome. Another, of a similar form, but of different materials, is figured in the same volume, in the plate illustrative of P. Eremita, with two young ones therein.

Other Hamming-Birds suspend their nests to the sides of rocks. These are hammock-shaped in form, and are most ingeniously attached to the face of the rock by means of spiders’ webs and the cottony materials of which they are sometimes built. Those made by the Oreotrochili are very large, and composed of wool, llama hair, moss, and feathers; at the top of this great mass, of nearly the size of a child’s head, is a little cup-shaped depression in which the eggs are deposited. Respecting the nest made by the Oreotrochilus Pichincha, my friend Professor Jameson, of Quito, writes, “On the first of the present month (November 1858), I visited the snowy mountain of Antisana in company with the American Minister. In the celebrated Farm-house (about 13,500 feet above the sea) I found in one of the lower or ground-apartments, unprovided with a door, several nests of Oreotrochilus Pichincha, one of which was attached to a straw rope suspended from the roof. Iam quite certain as to the identity of the species, having shot one of the birds. The rest will be sent to you in my next parcel.” See the figure of this nest given by Dr. Sclater in the ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1860, p. 80.

Some of the Humming-Birds, and perhaps this very species, are said to suspend their great nests by the middle from the fine hanging root of a tree, or a tendril; and should the nest, which is of a curved form and built of any coarse materials at hand, prove to be heavier on one side than the other, the higher side is weighted with a small stone or square piece of earth until an equilibrium is established and the eggs prevented from rolling out. If such powers, so nearly approaching to that of reason, should be doubted by some of my readers, I can assure them that one or more of these loaded nests are contained in the Loddigesian Collection; and one is at this moment before me, an examination of which will satisfy the most sceptical of the truth of this statement. Occasionally the old nests are repaired or built over the old one, two, three, or more years in succession. Many other instances might be given to show that the nidification of the Humming-Birds is as singular as are the birds themselves. I believe that generally the eggs are two in number, but I also think it likely that some of the Phaëthornithes, or rather the members of the genus Glaucis, occasionally lay but one; for I have frequently seen only a single young bird in the nests sent to this country, and this single bird generally filled up the entire space of the frail structure, which, as I have before stated, is usually attached to the leaflet of a palm. The eggs are certainly large when we consider the tiny size of the birds which produce them; in shape they are oblong, nearly alike in form at both ends, and are probably of a pinkish hue before their contents are removed; after which they become of an opake white, and so closely resemble bon-bons that they might easily be mistaken for them. The birds are said to produce two broods a year; and the period of incubation generally occupies about twelve or fourteen, or, according to Captain Lyon, eighteen days. This gentleman, when giving an account of some Humming. Birds whose hatching and education he sedulously watched, as the nest was made in a little orange-bush by the side of a frequented walk in his garden at Gongo Soco, in Brazil, states that the nest “was composed of the silky down of a plant, and covered with a small flat species of yellow lichen. The first egg was laid January 26th, the second on the 28th; and two little creatures like bees made their appearance on the morning of February 14th. As the young increased in size, the mother built her nest higher and higher. The old bird sat very close during a continuance of heavy rain for several days and nights. The young remained blind until February 28th, and flew on the morning of March 7th, without previous practice, as strong and swiftly as the mother, taking their first dart from the nest to a tree about twenty yards distant.”

Let me now mention one of the devices employed for the discovery of the nest of the Humming-Birds. Every observer who has written upon them has not failed to descant upon their boldness and pugnacity. Not only do they attack birds of much larger size than themselves, but it is even asserted that they will tilt at the Eagle if he approaches within the precincts of the nest; nor is man exempt from their assaults, of which an amusing instance will be found in the extract from Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley’s ‘Travels’ given on a subsequent page.

It is this readiness for combat which is taken advantage of to find the nest and eggs; and all that is necessary is to tie a string to your hat, and wave it round your head, when, if a female be sitting in the neighbourhood, the male will instantly come down upon you; and by watching his return, the nest may be detected.

Many really absurd statements have been made as to the means by which these birds are obtained for our cabinets. It is most frequently asserted that they are shot with water or with sand. Now, so far as I am aware, these devices are never resorted to, but they are usually procured in the ordinary way, with numbers ten and eleven shot, those being the sizes best suited for the purpose. If smaller shot be used, the plumage is very frequently so cut and damaged that the specimen is rendered of little or no value. By far the greater number fall to the clay ball of the blowpipe, which the Indians, and in some instances even Europeans use with perfect certainty of aim. My friend Professor Jameson has a son who appears to be a proficient in this mode of obtaining Humming-Birds, as I know that many of the specimens he has sent me have been thus procured.

In Brazil very fine nets are employed for this purpose; but how these nets are used I am unable to state. Unfortunately for me, many specimens of the fine species Cometes sparganurus in my possession have been obtained by means of birdlime; and this is evidently the way in which these birds are captured in the neighbourhood of Chuquisaca.


That the Humming-Bird is not altogether denied the power of song, we learn from the notices respecting its vocalization by various authors; but as this is a point upon which I cannot speak from personal observation, I shall take the liberty of quoting from those who have written on the subject.


To begin with the remarks of my friend Mr. W. C. L. Martin:—

It is not to the most beautiful birds that the voice of melody is given. The Mocking-Bird, the Nightingale, and the Thrush are but plainly attired; and it would appear that if Nature be lavish in one respect, she is parsimonious in another. On the Humming-Birds she has bestowed the gift of beauty: she has created them winged gems—she has chased their plumage with burnished metals or overspread it with laminæ of topaz and emerald—she has strained, so to speak, at every variety of effect—she has revelled in an infinitude of modifications, whether we look at the hue or the development of the feathering. We can scarcely, then, expect that, to such an external perfection, the gift of song will be also added; and, indeed, when we reflect upon the structure of the tongue, of the os hyoides which ‘supports its base, and of the mechanism by which it is rendered capable of protrusion, remembering that the os hyoides is connected with the larynx, we cannot in reason suppose that these birds can be eminent as songsters. Nevertheless it would appear that some species at least utter, while perched, a sort of querulous warble.

The ordinary cry of the Humming-Birds is sharp and shrill, generally uttered on the wing, and frequently reiterated by the males during their combats with each other. It is principally, says Lesson, in passing from one place to another, that their ery, which he likens to the syllables tère-tère, articulated with more or less force, is excited. Most frequently, he says, they are completely dumb; and he adds that he has passed whole hours in observing them in the forests of Brazil without having heard the slightest sound proceed from their throats.


Mr. Gosse, in his ‘Birds of Jamaica,’ speaking of a species which he calls the Vervain Humming-Bird (the Mellisuga minima of this work), says,

“The present is the only Humming-Bird that I am acquainted with that has a real song. Soon after sunrise, in the spring months, it is fond of sitting on the topmost branch of a mango or orange-tree, where it warbles in a very weak, but very sweet tone, a continuous melody for ten minutes at a time; it has little variety. The others only utter a pertinacious chirping.

It will be expected that some remarks should now be made with regard to the luminous character of certain parts of the plumage of these charming birds—a point which has engaged the attention of many naturalists and physiologists, but of which I believe no very satisfactory solution has yet been attained.


A few days since, we were examining a Humming-Bird, the gorget of which was an intense emerald-green; but on changing the light (that is, altering its angle of incidence), the emerald was changed into velvet-black. Audebert considered this changeableness to be due to the organization of the feathers, and to the manner in which the luminous rays are reflected on falling upon them: and of this, we think, there can be little doubt; for each feather, when minutely inspected, exhibits myriads of little facets so disposed as to present so many angles to the incidence of light, which will be diversely reflected according to the position of the feather, and in some positions not reflected in any sensible degree, and thus emerald may become a velvet-black.

Lesson supposes that the brilliant hues of the plumage of the Humming-Birds are derived from some elements contained in the blood, and elaborated by the circulation—a theory we do not quite understand, inasmuch as colour is the result of the reflection of some rays and the absorption of others, caused by the arrangement of the molecules of any given body. He adds, however, that the texture of the plumes plays the principal part, in consequence of the manner in which the rays of light traverse them, or are reflected by the innumerable facets which a prodigious quantity of barbules or fibres present. All the scaly feathers, he observes, which simulate velvet, the emerald, or the ruby, and which we see on the head and throat of the Epimachi (as the Grand Promerops of New Guinea), the Paradise-Birds, and the Humming-Birds, resemble each other in the uniformity of their formation; all are composed of cylindrical barbules, bordered with other analogous regular barbules, which, in their turn, support other small ones; and all of them are hollowed in the centre with a deep furrow, so that when the light, as Audebert first remarked, glides in a vertical direction over the scaly feathers, the result is that all the luminous rays are absorbed in traversing them, and the perception of black is produced. But it is no longer the same when the light is reflected from these feathers, each of which performs the office of a reflector; then it is that the aspect of the emomald: the ruby, &c. varying with the utmost diversity under the incidences of the rays which strike them, is given out by the molecular arrangement of the barbules. It is thus that the gorget of many species takes all the hues of green, and then the brightest and most unifor mly golden tints, down to intense velvet-black, or, on the contrary, that of ruby, which darts forth pencils of aoe or passes from reddish orange to a crimsoned red-black.

It is thus, we think, that the everchanging hues of the gorgets of the Humming-Birds from black to emerald, ruby, crimson, or flame-colour are to be explained.


In a note just received from Dr. Davy, dated Ambleside, June 10, 1861, that gentlemen says:—

I have examined with the microscope the feathers of the Humming-Bird, Aglæactis cupripennis, you entrusted to me, which is so remarkable for its rich colours as seen in one direction, and only one. The result is merely the following—viz., that those feathers in which this peculiarity is most strongly marked are membranous, terminating in pointed filaments, set on obliquely, so that looking from the head each feather is only partially seen. This result, I apprehend, will help very little to account for the peculiarity in question. Its explanation must be sought (must it not?) in the higher optics.


As to the question you ask me about the beautiful play of colours in the Humming-Birds, I have never studied the subject, and I should greatly fear to say anything about it, particularly if what I said were to be looked on as of any authority.

There are two optical principles only which I can see to be any way concerned in such an effect. One is the cause of the play of colours in mother-of-pearl, and which Brewster proved to arise from very fine striated rulings, the distance between the parallel lines not being greater than from the 10,000th to the 100,000th of an inch. Barton, of Birmingham, imitated this by ruling very fine parallel lines on steel dies, and then impressing these on buttons, which showed very beautiful colours when exposed to strong light. The other optical principle, which I think, however, to be the most likely to produce the effect in the case of feathers, is the influence of thin plates. If you know Mr. Gassiot (one of your leading Royal Institution savants), get him to show you some of his copper-plates, on which by an electrotype process he has had very thin films of lead deposited; and I think you will see colours fully as beautiful, though not as varied or as variable in different aspects as those of the Humming-Bird.

It may not be out of place now to give a few extracts from the works of those authors who have written on the Trochilidæ in general or on some particular species. A perusal of these will tend to confirm much that I have said; and it is but fair that the writings of those who have wielded the pen in elucidation of the history, habits, and manners of these lovely birds should be duly recognized.

It is fortunate for the science of Ornithology that so many persons gifted with the power of expressing their ideas in elegant and poetical language should have bestowed a large share of their attention upon the Humming-Bird. The writings of Buffon, Wilson, Waterton, Audubon, Gosse, and others, treating exclusively on natural history, are not, perhaps, so generally known as they ought to be; the extracts from these authors will therefore, I doubt not, be found of interest.


Of all animated beings, this is the most elegant in form and the most brilliant in colour. The stones and metals polished by art are not comparable to this gem of Nature: she has placed it in the order of Birds, but among the tiniest of the race—maxime miranda in minimis; she has loaded it with all the gifts of which she has only given other birds a share. Agility, rapidity, nimbleness, grace, and rich attire, all belong to this little favourite. The emerald, the ruby, and the topaz, glitter in its garb, which is never soiled with the dust of earth; for, leading an aérial life, it rarely touches the turf even for an instant. Always in the air, flying from flower to flower, it shares their freshness and their splendour, lives on their nectar, and only inhabits those climates in which they are unceasingly renewed. The Humming-Bird seems to follow the sun, to advance, to retire with him, and to fly on the wings of the wind in pursuit of an eternal spring.


Nature in every department of her works seems to delight in variety; and the present subject is almost as singular for its minuteness, beauty, want of song, and manner of feeding, as the preceding (the Mocking-Bird) is for unrivalled excellence of notes and plainness of plumage. This is one of the few birds that are universally beloved; and amidst the sweet dewy serenity of a summer’s morning, his appearance among the arbours of honeysuckles and beds of flowers is truly interesting.

When morning dawns, and the blest sun again
Lifts his red glories from the eastern main,
Then through our woodbines, wet with glittering dews,
The flower-fed Humming-Bird his round pursues;
Sips with inserted tube the honied blooms,
And chirps his gratitude as round he roams;
While richest roses, though in crimson drest,
Shrink from the splendour of his gorgeous breast.
What heavenly tints in mingling radiance fly!
Each rapid movement gives a different dye;
Like scales of burnished gold they dazzling show—
Now sink to shade, now like a furnace glow!


Speaking of the Trochilus Colubris:

Where is the person who, on seeing this lovely little creature moving on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to another with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course and yielding new delights wherever it is seen—where is the person, I ask, who, on observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and turn his mind with reverence towards the Almighty Creator, the wonders of whose hand we at every step discover, and of whose sublime conceptions we everywhere observe the manifestations in his admirable system of creation? There breathes not such a person; so kindly have we all been blessed with that intuitive and noble feeling—admiration.

I wish it-were in my power to impart to you, kind reader, the pleasures which I have felt while watching the movements and viewing the manifestations of feelings displayed by a single pair of these most favourite little creatures when engaged in the demonstration of their love for each other;—how the male swells his plumage and throat, and, dancing on the wing, whirls around the delicate female; how quickly he dives towards a flower and returns with a loaded bill, which he offers to her to whom alone he desires to be united; how full of ecstacy he seems to be when his caresses are kindly received; how his little wings fan her as they fan the flowers, and he transfers to her bill the insect and the honey which he has procured with a view to please her; how these attentions are received with apparent satisfaction; how, soon after, the blissful compact is sealed; how, then, the courage and care of the male is redoubled; how he even dares to give chase to the tyrant Flycatcher, hurries the Blue-Bird and the Martin to their boxes; and how, on sounding pinions, he joyously returns to the side of his lovely mate. Reader, all these proofs of the sincerity, fidelity, and courage with which the male assures his mate of the care he will take of her while sitting on her nest, may be seen, have been seen, but cannot be pourtrayed or described.

Could you cast a momentary glance on the nest of the Humming-Bird and see, as I have seen, the newly-hatched pair of young, little larger than humble-bees, naked, blind, and so feeble as scarcely to be able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents; and could you see those parents full of anxiety and fear, passing and repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body, waiting the result of your unwelcome visit in a state of the utmost despair, you could not fail to be impressed with the interest of the scene. Then how pleasing it is, on your leaving the spot, to see the returning hope of the parents when, after examining the nest, they find their nestlings untouched ! These are the scenes best fitted to enable us to partake of sorrow and joy, and to determine every one who views them to make it his study to contribute to the happiness of others, and to refrain from wantonly or maliciously giving them pain.

A person standing in a garden by the side of a common Althæa in bloom, will be surprised to hear the humming of their wings, and then see the birds themselves within a few feet of him, as he will be astonished at the rapidity with which the little creatures rise into the air, and are out of sight and hearing the next moment.

No bird seems to resist their attacks; but they are sometimes chased by the larger kinds of humblebees, of which they seldom take the least notice, as their superiority of flight is sufficient to enable them to leave those slow-moving insects far behind in the short space of a minute.

If comparison might enable you to form some tolerably accurate idea of their peculiar mode of flight and their appearance when on the wing, I should say that, were both objects of the same colour, a large Sphine or moth when moving from one flower to another, and in a direct line, comes nearer the Humming-Bird in aspect than any other object with which I am acquainted.

Audubon, Ornithological Biography, vol. 1. p. 248, &c. For the other portions of Wilson’s and Audubon’s very interesting observations, I must refer my readers to my account of Trochilus Colubris.


Though least in size, the glittering mantle of the Humming-Bird entitles it to the first place in the list of the birds of the New World. It may truly be called the Bird of Paradise; and had it existed in the Old World it would have claimed the title, instead of the bird which has now the honour to bear it. See it darting through the air almost as quick as thought !—now it is within a yard of your face!—in an instant it is gone!—now it flutters from flower to flower to sip the silver dew—it is now a ruby—now a topaz—now an emerald—now all burnished gold! It would be arrogant to pretend to describe this winged gem of nature after Buffon’s elegant description of it.

Cayenne and Demerara produce the same Humming-Birds. Perhaps you would wish to know something of their haunts. Chiefly in the months of July and August, the tree called Bois Immortel, very common in Demerara, bears abundance of red blossom, which stays on the tree for some weeks; then it is that most of the species of Humming-Birds are very plentiful. The wild Red Sage (Salvia splendens) is also their favourite shrub; and they buzz like bees round the blossoms of the Wallaba-tree; indeed there is scarce a flower in the interior, or on the sea-coast, but what receives frequent visits from one or other of the species.

On entering the forests of the rising land in the interior, the blue and green, the smallest brown, no bigger than the humble-bee, with two long feathers in the tail, and the little forked-tail purple-throated Humming-Birds glitter before you in ever-changing attitudes.

As you advance towards the mountains of Demerara, other species of Humming-Birds present themselves before you. It seems to be an erroneous opinion that the Humming-Bird lives entirely on honey-dew. Almost every flower of the tropical climate contains insects of one kind or other: now the Humming-Bird is most busy about the flowers an hour or two after sunrise, and after a shower of rain; and it is just at this time that the insects come out to the edge of the flower, in order that the sun’s rays may dry the nocturnal dew and rain which they have received. On opening the stomach of the Humming-Bird, dead insects are almost always found there.

Lady Emmeline Stuart Wartley in her Travels

The Humming-Birds in Jamaica are lovely little creatures, and most wonderfully tame and fearless of the approach of man. One of these charming feathered jewels had built its delicate nest close to one of the walks of the garden belonging to the house where we were staying. The branch, indeed, of the beautiful shrub in which this fairy nest was suspended almost intruded into the walk; and every time we sauntered by, there was much danger of sweeping against this projecting branch with its precious charge, and doing it some injury, as very little would have demolished the exquisite fabric. In process of time, two lovely pear-like eggs had appeared; and while we were there we had the great pleasure of seeing the minute living gems themselves appear, looking like two very small bees. The mother-bird allowed us to look closely at her in the nest, and inspect her little nurslings, when she was flying about near, without appearing in the least degree disconcerted or alarmed. I never saw so tame or so bold a pet. But she did not allow the same liberties to be taken by everybody unchecked. One day, as Sir C—— was walking in the pretty path beside which the fragile nest was delicately suspended amid sheltering leaves, he paused in order to look at its Lilliputian inhabitants. While thus engaged, he felt suddenly a sharp light rapping on the crown of his hat, which considerably surprised him. He looked round to ascertain from whence the singular and unexpected attack proceeded: but nothing was to be seen. Almost thinking he must have been mistaken, he continued his survey, when a much sharper and louder rat-tat-tat-tat-tat seemed to demand his immediate attention, and a little to jeopardize the perfect integrity and preservation of the fabric in question. Again he looked round, far from pleased at such extraordinary impertinence, when what should he see but the beautiful delicate Humming-Bird, with ruffled feathers and fiery eyes, who seemed by no means inclined to let him off without a further infliction of sharp taps and admonitory raps from her fairy beak. She looked like a little fury in miniature—a winged Xantippe. Those pointed attentions apprised him that his company was not desired or acceptable; and, much amused at the excessive boldness of the dauntless little owner of the exquisite nest he had been contemplating, Sir C—— moved off, anxious not to disturb or irritate further this valiant minute mother, who displayed such intrepidity and cool determination. As to V—— and me, the darling little pet did not mind us in the least; she allowed us to watch her to our hearts’ content during the uninterrupted progress of all her little household and domestic arrangements, and rather appeared to like our society than not, and to have the air of saying, ‘Do you think I manage it well? eh?’ ”

Reverend Lansdown Guilding

I cannot quit the subject without speaking of the delight that was afforded me, in Jamaica, by seeing Humming-Birds feeding on honey in the florets of the great Aloe (Agàve Americàna, Linn.). On the side of a hill upon Sutton’s Estate (the property of Henry Dawkins, Esq.) were a considerable number of aloe-plants, of which about a dozen were in full blossom. They were spread over a space of about twenty yards square. The spikes, bearing bunches of flowers in a thyrsus, were from twelve to fifteen feet high; on each spike were many hundred flowers of a bright yellow colour, each floret of a tubular shape and containing a good-sized drop of honey. Such an assemblage of floral splendour was in itself most magnificent and striking; but it may be imagined how much the interest caused by this beautiful exhibition was increased by vast numbers of Humming-Birds, of various species, fluttering at the opening of the flowers, and dipping their bills first into one floret and then into another,— the sun, as usual, shining bright upon their varied and beautiful plumage. The long-tailed or Bird-ofParadise Humming-Bird was particularly striking, its long feathers waving as it darted from one flower to another. I was so much delighted with this sight, that I visited the spot again in the afternoon, after a very long and fatiguing day’s ride, accompanied by my wife, on horseback, when we enjoyed the scene before us for more than half-an-hour.


The pugnacity of the Humming-Birds, has been often spoken of: two of one species can rarely suck flowers from the same bush without a rencontre. I once witnessed a combat between two, which was prosecuted with much pertinacity and protracted to an unusual length. It was in the month of April, when I was spending a few days at Phoenix Park, near Savannah la Mar, the residence of my kind friend Aaron Deleon, Esq. In the garden were two trees, of the kind called Malay Apple (Eugenia Malaccensis), one of which was but a yard or two from my window. ‘The genial influence of the spring rains had covered them with a profusion of beautiful blossoms, each consisting of a multitude of crimson stamens, with very minute petals, like bunches of crimson tassels; but the leaf-buds were only beginning toopen. A Humming-Bird had every day and all day long been paying his devoirs to these charming blossoms. On the morning to which I allude, another came, and the manceuvres of these two tiny creatures became very interesting. They chased each other through the labyrinths of twigs and flowers, till, an opportunity occurring, the one would dart with seeming fury upon the other, and then, with a loud rustling of their wings, they would twirl together round and round, till they nearly came to the earth. It was some time before I could see, with any distinctness, what took place in these tussles; their twirlings were so rapid as to bafile all attempts at discrimination. At length an encounter took place pretty close to me, and I perceived that the beak of the one grasped the beak of the other, and thus fastened both whirled round and round in their perpendicular descent, the point of contact being the centre of the gyrations, till, when another second would have brought them both on the ground, they separated, and the one chased the other for about a hundred yards and then returned in triumph to the tree, where, perched on a lofty twig, he chirped monotonously and pertinaciously for some time—I could not help thinking, in defiance. In a few minutes, however, the banished one returned and began chirping no less provokingly, which soon brought on another chase and another tussle. I am persuaded that these were hostile encounters: for one seemed evidently afraid of the other, fleeing when the other pursued, though his indomitable spirit would prompt the chirp of defiance; and when resting after a battle, I noticed that this one held his beak open as if panting. Sometimes they would suspend hostilities to suck a few blossoms; but mutual proximity was sure to bring them on again, with the same result. In their tortuous and rapid evolutions, the light from their ruby necks would occasionally flash in the sun with gem-like radiance; and, as they now and then hovered motionless, the broadly-expanded tail, the outer feathers of which are crimson-purple, but when intercepting the sun’s rays transmit orange-coloured light, added much to their beauty. A little Banana Quit (Certhiola flaveola), that was peeping among the blossoms in his own quiet way, seemed now and then to look with surprise on the combatants; but when the one had driven his rival to a longer distance than usual, the victor set upon the unoffending Quit, who soon yielded the point, and retired, humbly enough, to a neighbouring tree. The war (for it was a thorough campaign, a regular succession of battles) lasted fully an hour, and then I was called away from the post of observation. Both of the Humming-Birds appeared to be males.

All the Humming-Birds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air, and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me. I observed it carefully, and distinctly saw the minute flies in the air which it pursued and caught, and heard repeatedly the snapping of the beak. My presence scarcely disturbed it, if at all.


In some notes on the ‘Habits of the Humming-Birds of the Amazon,’ kindly furnished me by Mr. Wallace, that gentleman says—

The great number of species that frequent flowers, do so, I am convinced, for the small insects found there, and not for the nectar. In dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of common flower-frequenting species which I have examined, the crop, stomach, and intestines have been entirely filled with minute beetles, bees, ants, and spiders, which abound in most flowers in South America. Very rarely, indeed, have I found a trace of honey or of any liquid in the crop or stomach. The flowers they most frequent are the various species of Inga, and the papilionaceous flowers of many large forest-trees. I have never seen them at the Bignonias or any flowers but those which grow in large masses covering a whole tree or shrub, as they visit perhaps a hundred flowers in a minute and never stop at a single one. The little Emerald Hummer I have seen in gardens and at the common orange, Asclepias, which often covers large spaces of waste ground in the tropics. But there are many, such as Phaëthornis Eremita, and some larger allied species, which I have never seen at flowers. These inhabit the gloomy forest-shades, where they dart about among the foliage, and I have distinctly observed them visit in rapid succession every leaf on a branch, balancing themselves vertically in the air, passing their beak closely over the under surface of each leaf, and thus capturing, no doubt, any small insects that may be upon them. While doing this the two long feathers of their tail have a vibrating motion, serving apparently as a rudder to assist them in performing the delicate operation. I have seen others searching up and down stems and dead sticks in the same manner, every now and then picking off something, exactly as a Bush-strike or a Tree-creeper does, with this exception, that the Humming-Bird is constantly on the wing. They also capture insects in the true Fissirostral manner, How often may they be seen perched on the dead twig of a lofty tree—the same station that is chosen by the tyrant Flycatchers and the Jacamars, and from which, like those birds, they dart off a short distance and, after a few whirls and balancings, return to the identical twig they had left. In the evening, too, just after sunset, when the Goat-suckers are beginning their search after insects over the rivers, I have seen Humming-Birds come out of the forest and remain a long time on the wing—now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the varied evolutions of their companions the Goat-suckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose.

Many naturalists have noticed this habit of feeding on insects, but have generally considered it as the exception, whereas I am inclined to think it is the rule. The frequenting of flowers seems to me only one of the many ways by which they are enabled to procure their insect-food.

Alfred Newton

Wilson, Audubon, Mr. Gosse, and several others gifted with the ‘pen of a ready writer’ have so fully described, as far as words will admit, the habits of different members of the family Trochilidæ, that it is unnecessary to say much upon this score. Their appearance is so entirely unlike that of any other birds that it is hopeless to attempt in any way to bring a just conception of it to the ideas of those who have not crossed the Atlantic; and even the comparison so often made between them and the Sphingidæ, though doubtless in the main true, is much to the advantage of the latter. One is admiring the clustering stars of a scarlet Cordia, the snowy cornucopias of a Portlandia, or some other brilliant and beautiful flower, when between the blossom and one’s eye suddenly appears a small dark object, suspended as it were between four short black threads meeting each other in a cross. Foran instant it shows in front of the flower; an instant more, it steadies itself, and one perceives the space between each pair of threads occupied by a grey film; again another instant, and, emitting a momentary flash of emerald and sapphire light, it is vanishing, lessening in the distance, as it shoots away, to a speck that the eye cannot take note of,—and all this so rapidly that the word on one’s lips is still unspoken, scarcely the thought in one’s mind changed. It was a bold man or an ignorant one who first ventured to depict Humming-Birds flying; but it cannot be denied that representations of them in that attitude are often of special use to the ornithologist. The peculiar action of one, and probably of many or all other, species of the family is such, that at times, in flying, it makes the wings almost meet, both in front and behind, at each vibration. Thus, when a bird chances to enter a room, it will generally go buzzing along the cornice: standing beneath where it is, one will find that the axis of the body is vertical, and each wing is describing a nearly perfect semicircle. As might be expected, the pectoral muscles are very large; indeed the sternum of this bird is a good deal bigger than that of the common Chimney-Swallow (Hirundo rustica, L.). But the extraordinary rapidity with which the vibrations are effected seems to be chiefly caused by these powerful muscles acting on the very short wing-bones, which are not half the length of the same parts in the Swallow; and accordingly, great as this alar action is, and in spite of the contrary opinion entertained by Mr. Gosse (Nat. Sojourn in Jamaica, p. 240), it is yet sometimes wanting in power, owing doubtless to the disadvantageous leverage thus obtained; and the old authors must be credited who speak of cobwebs catching HummingBirds.

On the 3rd of May, 1857, a bird of this species [Eulampis chlorolemus, Gould] flew into the room where I was sitting, and, after fluttering for some minutes against the ceiling, came in contact with a deserted spider’s web, in which it got entangled and remained suspended and perfectly helpless for more than a minute, when by a violen effort it freed itself. I soon after caught it, still having fragments of the web on its head, neck, and wings; and I feel pretty sure that had this web been inhabited and in good repair, instead of being deserted and dilapidated, the bird would never have escaped.


In his ‘Notes on the Humming-Birds of Guatemala,’ Mr. Salvin says,

During the months of August and September the localities of the various species of Humming-Birds are usually as follows. Among the trees on the south-eastern side of the lake [of Dueñas] are Amazilia Devillei, Thaumastura enicura (mostly females), Campylopterus rufus, Heliomaster longirostris, Chlorostilbon Osberti (an small number), Cyanomyia cyanocephala, and Trochilus Colubris.

On the hill-side to the south-westward of the lake are great numbers of Campylopterus rufus, and among the willows close to the water the males of Thaumastura enicura congregate. About the Convolvulus-trees in the Ilaño at the foot of the volcano are found Eugenes fulgens, Amazilia Devillei, Thaumastura enicura (in small numbers), Trochilus Colubris (very commonly towards the end of September).

Entering the first barranco that opens out into the plain, we meet with Campylopterus rufus, Myiabeillia typica, Heliopædica melanotis; and a little higher up, Petasophora thalassina and Delattria viridipallens. Of course, occasionally a species is found not in its place as here indicated; for instance, I have seen in the first locality a single specimen (the only female I have met with) of Eugenes fulgens, and another high in the volcano. I have also seen a single Petasophora thalassina out on the llano. These localities must therefore be taken as only generally indicating the distribution of the species found about Dueñas.

Ibis, vol. i. p. 263.


At the moment of printing these pages, I have received a very interesting letter from my friend the Hon. G. W. Allen, of Moss Park, Toronto, in which the following passage occurs respecting the Trochilus Colubris:—

I wish you could have been with us last summer, you would have had an opportunity of watching your favourite Humming-Birds to your heart’s content. I do not in the least exaggerate when I say that, during the time the horse-chestnuts were in flower, there were hundreds of these little tiny creatures about my grounds. While sitting in my library I could hear their little, sharp, querulous note, as the males fought like so many little bantam-cocks with each other. On one large horse-chestnut tree, just at the corner of the house, they swarmed about the foliage like so many bees; and as the top branches of the tree were close to my bed-room windows, every now and then one bird more bold than the rest would dart into the open window, and perch upon the wardrobe or the top of the bed-post.


It will be expected that, in a monograph of a group of birds which have attracted so much notice, some account should be given of their internal structure; and as our Well-known bird-anatomist, T. C. Eyton, Esq., has paid much attention to the subject, and given a very clear description of the anatomy of the largest species of the family (the Patagona gigas) in Mr. Darwin’s ‘Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle,’ I have much pleasure in transferring it to my pages:—

Tongue bifid, each division pointed; hyoids very long, in their position resembling those in the Picidae (Woodpeckers); trachea of uniform diameter, destitute of muscles of voice; bronchia very long; esophagus funnel-shaped, slightly contracted on approaching the proventriculus, which is small and scarcely perceptible; gizzard small, moderately muscular, the inner coat slightly hardened, and filled with the remains of insects; intestine largest near the gizzard; I could not perceive a vestige of ceca. ‘Length of the ceso-

phagus, including the proventriculus, 1\(\frac{3}{4}\), inch of the intestinal canal 3\(\frac{1}{2}\); length of the gizard \(\frac{1}{2}\), breadth \(\frac{1}{3}\).

Sternum with the keel very deep, its edge rounded and projecting anteriorly; posterior margin rounded, and destitute of indentation or fissure; the ridges to which the pectoral muscles have their attachment large and prominent, the horizontal portion much narrowed anteriorly, consequently the junctions of the coracoids are very near together.

Pelvis short, very broad; os pubis long, curved upwards at the extremities, projecting far downwards, and posteriorly beyond the termination of the caudal vertebra; the ischiatic foramen small and linear; femora placed far backwards; coracoids short, very strong, their extremities much diverging; os furcatum short, slightly arched near the extremities of the rami, which are far apart, furnished with only a small process on its approach to the sternum; scapula flattened, long, broadest near the extremity; humerus, radius, and ulna short, the metacarpal bones longer than either, the former furnished with ridges much elevated for the attachment of the pectoral muscles; caudal and dorsal vertebræ with the transverse processes long and expanded; cranium of moderate strength, the occipital portion indented with two furrows, which pass over the vertex, and in which the hyoids lie; orbits large, divided by a complete bony septum; the lacrymal bones large, causing an expansion of the bill near the nostrils.

Number of cervical vertebra 10, dorsal 6, sacral 9, caudal 5; total 30.

Number of true ribs 5, false 4; total 9.


Dr. Davy states that the blood-corpuscles of a recently-killed Humming-Bird, examined by him in Barbadoes,

“were beautifully definite, regular and uniform. The disk very.thin, perfectly flat; the nucleus slightly raised; and the two corresponding in outline. The corpuscles 1-2666th by 1-4000th of an inch, the long diameter of the nucleus very nearly 1-4000th. The blood was small in quantity, as I apprehend is the blood of birds generally, but not deficient in red corpuscles. I have found its temperature to be about 105 degrees.


I have found it impossible to divide the Humming-Birds into more than two subfamilies—Phaëthornithine and Trochilinæ; for I find no such well-marked divisions among them as will enable me so to do: neither can I arrange them in anything like a continuous series; so many gaps occur here and there, that one is almost led to the belief that many forms have either died out or have not yet been discovered; consequently I am unable to commence with any one genus and arrange the remainder in accordance with their affinity. Whenever I have observed an apparent relationship between two or more genera, they have been placed in contiguity; and the species which appear to be allied to each other are arranged in continuous succession. I do not consider one species more typical than another; all are equally and beautifully adapted for the purposes they are intended to perform.

The following Synopsis will be found to contain a general view of the subject, and, as it also comprises many new synonyms and the additional information I have been able to obtain during the progress of the work, should always be consulted.

I shall now give the general characters by which the Trochilidæ are distinguished:—

Body small; sternum very deep; bill subulate, and generally longer than the head, straight, arched, or upcurved; tongue composed of two lengthened cylindrical united tubes, capable of great protrusion, and bifid at the tip; nostrils basal, linear, and covered by an operculum; wings lengthened, pointed, the first quill-feather or primary of which is the longest, except in the genus Aïthurus, where it is exceeded by the second; primaries ten in number; tarsi and feet very diminutive; tail consisting of ten feathers. The entire structure adapted for aërial progression.

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