Hummingbirds have been slow to give up their secrets, but slowly, we’ve learned to understand them

Bernd Brunner in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_703 Jun. 20 19.50Some hummingbirds are no larger than a thumb, and the smallest among them are the very smallest birds in existence. Yet it’s hard to avoid superlatives when talking about these tiny creatures. With their often magnificent jewel-like colors, they glimmer like finely wrought works of art. In fact, they are miracles of nature: extremely agile, fast-moving animals that take the characteristics of birds to their utmost limit. Combining dynamism, fragility, and a surprising degree of fearlessness, hummingbirds can be found in the most diverse environments: in tiny front yards in North, Central, and South American cities; on the high plateau of the Andes; and in the dense Amazon forests.

The very first mention of hummingbirds by a European probably occurred in the accounts of Jean de Léry, a French sailor and explorer. De Léry was part of a group of mariners sent to the Brazilian coast in 1556. His 1557 Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique contains a number of observations about the inhabitants, flora, and fauna of this new continent, completely unknown to the readers. Throughout the two centuries after de Léry, a range of authors mentioned hummingbirds, but a systematic framework for their observations was still a long way off. George Marcgrave, who traveled to Brazil in 1638, described several hummingbird species in his Historia Rerum Naturalium Brasiliae, published in Amsterdam ten years later. Soon the birds were popping up in all sorts of contexts — their unusual features were always worth an anecdote. In his Mundus Mirabilis Tripartitus (1689), one of the compendia of all sorts of natural curiosities popular at the time, the German Eberhard Werner Happel speaks of a “little bird in its shining little plumage” that lives in the “New Netherlands”:

It is barely the length of a thumb and sucks from the flowers like a bee …. Another type of this most beautiful bird is found on the islands of the Antilles, but especially on the island Anegada. Its body is not much larger than that of a beetle, covered with colorful feathers like a rainbow, and its neck is decorated with a little ruby-red ring. The wings appear as if gilded on the underside and the gold-green head wears a tiny cap or hood.

Hummingbirds inspired Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, one of the first American naturalists, to a stirring comparison in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782): “Where do passions find room in so diminutive a body? They often fight with the fury of lions, until one of the combatants falls a sacrifice and dies.”

More here.