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    Ch. 16: Humming-birds

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    Chapter 17
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    Humming-birds are perhaps the very loveliest things in nature, and many
    celebrated writers have exhausted their descriptive powers in vain
    efforts to picture them to the imagination. The temptation was certainly
    great, after describing the rich setting of tropical foliage and flower,
    to speak at length of the wonderful gem contained within it; but they
    would in this case have been wise to imitate that modest novel-writer
    who introduced a blank space on the page where the description of his
    matchless heroine should have appeared. After all that has been written,
    the first sight of a living humming-bird, so unlike in its beauty all
    other beautiful things, comes like a revelation to the mind. To give any
    true conception of it by means of mere word-painting is not more
    impossible than it would be to bottle up a supply of the "living
    sunbeams" themselves, and convey them across the Atlantic to scatter
    them in a sparkling shower over the face of England.

    Doubtless many who have never seen them in a state of nature imagine
    that a tolerably correct idea of their appearance can be gained from
    Gould's colossal monograph. The pictures there, however, only represent
    dead humming-birds. A dead robin is, for purposes of bird-portraiture,
    as good as a live robin; the same may be said of even many
    brilliant-plumaged species less aerial in their habits than
    humming-birds. In butterflies the whole beauty is seldom seen until the
    insect is dead, or, at any rate, captive. It was not when Wallace saw
    the Ornithoptera croesus flying about, but only when he held it in his
    hands, and opened its glorious wings, that the sight of its beauty
    overcame him so powerfully. The special kind of beauty which makes the
    first sight of a humming-bird a revelation depends on the swift singular
    motions as much as on the intense gem-like and metallic brilliancy of
    the plumage.

    The minute exquisite form, when the bird hovers on misty wings, probing
    the flowers with its coral spear, the fan-like tail expanded, and
    poising motionless, exhibits the feathers shot with many hues; and the
    next moment vanishes, or all but vanishes, then reappears at another
    flower only to vanish again, and so on successively, showing its
    splendours not continuously, but like the intermitted flashes of the
    firefly--this forms a picture of airy grace and loveliness that baffles
    description. All this glory disappears when the bird is dead, and even
    when it alights to rest on a bough. Sitting still, it looks like an
    exceedingly attenuated kingfisher, without the pretty plumage of that
    bird, but retaining its stiff artificial manner. No artist has been so
    bold as to attempt to depict the bird as it actually appears, when
    balanced before a flower the swift motion of the wings obliterates their
    form, making them seem like a mist encircling the body; yet it is
    precisely this formless cloud on which the glittering body hangs
    suspended, which contributes most to give the humming-bird its wonderful
    sprite-like or extra-natural appearance. How strange, then, to find
    bird-painters persisting in their efforts to show the humming-bird
    flying! When they draw it stiff and upright on its perch the picture is
    honest, if ugly; the more ambitious representation is a delusion and a
    mockery.

    Coming to the actual colouring--the changeful tints that glow with such
    intensity on the scale-like feathers, it is curious to find that Gould
    seems to have thought that all difficulties here had been successfully
    overcome. The "new process" he spoke so confidently about might no doubt
    be used with advantage in reproducing the coarser metallic reflections
    on a black plumage, such as we see in the corvine birds; but the
    glittering garment of the humming-bird, like the silvery lace woven by
    the Epeira, gemmed with dew and touched with rainbow-coloured light, has
    never been and never can be imitated by art.

    On this subject one of the latest observers of humming-birds, Mr.
    Everard im Thurn, in his work on British Guiana, has the following
    passage:--"Hardly more than one point of colour is in reality ever
    visible in any one humming-bird at one and the same time, for each point
    only shows its peculiar and glittering colour when the light falls upon
    it from a particular direction. A true representation of one of these
    birds would show it in somewhat sombre colours, except just at the one
    point which, when the bird is in the position chosen for representation,
    meets the light at the requisite angle, and that point alone should be
    shown in full brilliance of colour. A flowery shrub is sometimes seen
    surrounded by a cloud of humming-birds, all of one species, and each, of
    course, in a different position. If someone would draw such a scene as
    that, showing a different detail of colour in each bird, according to
    its position, then some idea of the actual appearance of the bird might
    be given to one who had never seen an example."

    It is hardly to be expected that anyone will carry out the above
    suggestion, and produce a monograph with pages ten or fifteen feet wide
    by eighteen feet long, each one showing a cloud of humming-birds of one
    species flitting about a flowery bush; but even in such a picture as
    that would be, the birds, suspended on unlovely angular projections
    instead of "hazy semicircles of indistinctness," and each with an
    immovable fleck of brightness on the otherwise sombre plumage, would be
    as unlike living humming-birds as anything in the older monographs.

    Whether the glittering iridescent tints and singular ornaments for which
    this family is famous result from the cumulative process of conscious or
    voluntary sexual selection, as Darwin thought, or are merely the outcome
    of a superabundant vitality, as Dr. A. R.. Wallace so strongly
    maintains, is a question which science has not yet answered
    satisfactorily. The tendency to or habit of varying in the direction of
    rich colouring and beautiful or fantastic ornament, might, for all we
    know to the contrary, have descended to humming-birds from some
    diminutive, curiously-shaped, bright-tinted, flying reptile of arboreal
    habits that lived in some far-off epoch in the world's history. It is
    not, at all events, maintained by anyone that _all_ birds sprang
    originally from one reptilian stock; and the true position of
    humming-birds in a natural classification has not yet been settled, for
    no intermediate forms exist connecting them with any other group, To the
    ordinary mind they appear utterly unlike all other feathered creatures,
    and as much entitled to stand apart as, for instance, the pigeon and
    ostrich families. It has been maintained by some writers that they are
    anatomically related to the swifts, although the differences separating
    the two families appear so great as almost to stagger belief in this
    notion. Now, however, the very latest authority on this subject, Dr.
    Schufeldt, has come to the conclusion that swifts are only greatly
    modified Passeres, and that the humming-birds should form an order by
    themselves.

    Leaving this question, and regarding them simply with the ornithological
    eye that does not see far below the surface of things, when we have
    sufficiently admired the unique beauty and marvellous velocity of
    humming-birds, there is little more to be said about them. They are
    lovely to the eye--indescribably so; and it is not strange that Gould
    wrote rapturously of the time when he was at length "permitted to revel
    in the delight of seeing the humming-bird in a state of nature." The
    feeling, he wrote, which animated him with regard to these most
    wonderful works of creation it was impossible to describe, and could
    only be appreciated by those who have made natural history a study, and
    who "pursue the investigations of her charming mysteries with ardour and
    delight." This we can understand; but to what an astonishing degree the
    feeling was carried in him, when, after remarking that enthusiasm and
    excitement with regard to most things in life become lessened and
    eventually deadened by time in most of us, he was able to add, "not
    so, however, I believe, with those who take up the study of the Family
    of Humming-birds!" It can only be supposed that he regarded natural
    history principally as a "science of dead animals--a _necrology_," and
    collected humming-birds just as others collect Roman coins, birds' eggs,
    old weapons, or blue china, their zeal in the pursuit and faith in its
    importance increasing with the growth of their treasures, until they at
    last come to believe that though all the enthusiasms and excitements
    which give a zest to the lives of other men fade and perish with time,
    it is not so with their particular pursuit. The more rational kind of
    pleasure experienced by the ornithologist in studying habits and
    disposition no doubt results in a great measure from the fact that the
    actions of the feathered people have a savour of intelligence in them.
    Whatever his theory or conviction about the origin of instincts may
    happen to be, or even if he has no convictions on the subject, it must
    nevertheless seem plain to him that intelligence is, after all, in most
    cases, the guiding principle of life, supplementing and modifying habits
    to bring them into closer harmony with the environment, and enlivening
    every day with countless little acts which result from judgment and
    experience, and form no part of the inherited complex instincts. The
    longer he observes any one species or individual, the more does he find
    in it to reward his attention; this is not the case, however, with
    humming-birds, which possess the avian body but do not rank mentally
    with birds. The pleasure one takes in their beauty soon evaporates, and
    is succeeded by no fresh interest, so monotonous and mechanical are all
    their actions; and we accordingly find that those who are most familiar
    with them from personal observation have very little to say about them.
    A score of hummingbirds, of as many distinct species, are less to the
    student of habits than one little brown-plurnaged bird haunting his
    garden or the rush-bed of a neighbouring stream; and, doubtless, for a
    reason similar to that which makes a lovely human face uninformed by
    intellect seem less permanently attractive than many a homelier
    countenance. He grows tired of seeing the feathered fairies perpetually
    weaving their aerial ballet-dance about the flowers, and finds it a
    relief to watch the little finch or wren or flycatcher of shy temper and
    obscure protective colouring. Perhaps it possesses a graceful form and
    melodious voice to give it aesthetic value, but even without such
    accessories he can observe it day by day with increasing interest and
    pleasure; and it only adds piquancy to the feeling to know that the
    little bird also watches him with a certain amount of intelligent
    curiosity and a great deal of suspicion, and that it studiously
    endeavours to conceal from him all the little secrets its life which he
    is bent on discovering.

    It has frequently been remarked that humming birds are more like insects
    than birds in disposition. Some species, on quitting their perch,
    perform wide bee-like circles about the tree before shooting away in a
    straight line. Their aimless attacks on other species approaching or
    passing near them, even on large birds like hawks and pigeons, is a
    habit they have in common with many solitary wood-boring bees. They
    also, like dragon-flies and other insects, attack each other when they
    come together while feeding; and in this case their action strangely
    resembles that of a couple of butterflies, as they revolve about each
    other and rise vertically to a great height in the air. Again, like
    insects, they are undisturbed at the presence of man while feeding, or
    even when engaged in building and incubation; and like various solitary
    bees, wasps, &c., they frequently come close to a person walking or
    standing, to hover suspended in the air within a few inches of his face;
    and if then struck at they often, insect-like, return to circle round
    his head. All other birds, even those which display the least
    versatility, and in districts where man is seldom seen, show as much
    caution as curiosity in his presence; they recognize in the upright
    unfamiliar form a living being and a possible enemy. Mr. Whiteley, who
    observed humming-birds in Peru, says it is an amusing sight to watch the
    Lesbia nuna attempting to pass to a distant spot in a straight line
    during a high wind, which, acting on the long tail feathers, carries it
    quite away from the point aimed at. Insects presenting a large surface
    to the wind are always blown from their course in the same way, for even
    in the most windy districts they never appear to learn to guide
    themselves; and I have often seen a butterfly endeavouring to reach an
    isolated flower blown from it a dozen times before it finally succeeded
    or gave up the contest. Birds when shaping their course, unless young
    and inexperienced, always make allowance for the force of the wind.
    Humming-birds often fly into open rooms, impelled apparently by a
    fearless curiosity, and may then be chased about until they drop
    exhausted or are beaten down and caught, and, as Gould says, "if then
    taken into the hand, they almost immediately feed on any sweet, or pump
    up any liquid that may be offered to them, without betraying either fear
    or resentment at the previous treatment." Wasps and bees taken in the
    same way endeavour to sting their captor, as most people know from
    experience, nor do they cease struggling violently to free themselves;
    but the dragon-fly is like the humming-bird, and is no sooner caught
    after much ill-treatment, than it will greedily devour as many flies and
    mosquitoes as one likes to offer it. Only in beings very low in the
    scale of nature do we see the instinct of self-preservation in this
    extremely simple condition, unmixed with reason or feeling, and so
    transient in its effects. The same insensibility to danger is seen when
    humming-birds are captured and confined in a room, and when, before a
    day is over, they will flutter about their captor's face and even take
    nectar from his lips.

    Some observers have thought that hummingbirds come nearest to
    humble-bees in their actions. I do not think so. Mr. Bates writes: "They
    do not proceed in that methodical manner which bees follow, taking the
    flowers seriatim, but skip about from one part of a tree to another in
    the most capricious manner." I have observed humble-bees a great deal,
    and feel convinced that they arc among the most highly intelligent of
    the social hymenoptera. Humming-birds, to my mind, have a much closer
    resemblance to the solitary wood-boring bees and to dragon-flies. It
    must also be borne in mind that insects have very little time in which
    to acquire experience, and that a large portion of their life, in the
    imago state, is taken up with the complex business of reproduction.

    The Trochilidae, although confined to one continent, promise to exceed
    all other families--even the cosmopolitan finches and warblers--in
    number of species. At present over five hundred are known, or as many as
    all the species of birds in Europe together; and good reasons exist for
    believing that very many more--not less perhaps than one or two hundred
    species--yet remain to be discovered. The most prolific region, and
    where humming-birds are most highly developed, is known to be West
    Brazil and the eastern slopes of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes. This
    is precisely the least known portion of South America; the few
    naturalists and collectors who have reached it have returned laden with
    spoil, to tell us of a region surpassing all others in the
    superabundance and beauty of its bird life. Nothing, however, which can
    be said concerning these vast unexplored areas of tropical mountain and
    forest so forcibly impresses us with the idea of the unknown riches
    contained in them as the story of the Loddigesia mirabilis. This is
    perhaps the most wonderful humming-bird known, and no one who had not
    previously seen it figured could possibly form an idea of what it is
    like from a mere description. An outline sketch of it would probably be
    taken by most people as a fantastic design representing a bird-form in
    combination with leaves, in size and shape resembling poplar leaves, but
    on leaf-stalks of an impossible length, curving and crossing each other
    so as to form geometrical figures unlike anything in nature. Yet this
    bird (a single specimen) was obtained in Peru half a century ago, and
    for upwards of twenty years after its discovery Gould tried to obtain
    others, offering as much as fifty pounds for one; but no second specimen
    ever gladdened his eyes, nor was anything more heard of it until
    Stolzmann refound it in the year 1880.

    The addition of many new species to the long list would, however, be a
    matter of small interest, unless fresh facts concerning their habits and
    structure were at the same time brought to light; but we can scarcely
    expect that the as yet unknown species will supply any link connecting
    the Trochilidae with other existing families of birds. The eventual
    conclusion will perhaps be that this family has come down independently
    from an exceedingly remote past, and with scarcely any modification.
    While within certain very narrow limits humming-birds vary more than
    other families, outside of these limits they appear relatively
    stationary; and, conversely, other birds exhibit least variability in
    the one direction in which humming-birds vary excessively. On account of
    a trivial difference in habit they have sometimes been separated in two
    sub-families: the Phaethornithinae, found in shady tropical forests; and
    the Trochilinae, comprising humming-birds which inhabit open sunny
    places--and to this division they mostly belong. In both of these purely
    arbitrary groups, however, the aerial habits and manner of feeding
    poised in the air are identical, although the birds living in shady
    forests, where flowers are scarce, obtain their food principally from
    the under surfaces of leaves. In their procreant habits the uniformity
    is also very great. In all cases the nest is small, deep, cup-shaped, or
    conical, composed of soft felted materials, and lined inside with
    vegetable down. The eggs are white, and never exceed two in number.
    Broadly speaking, they resemble each other as closely in habits as in
    structure; the greatest differences in habit in the most widely
    separated genera being no greater than may be found in two wrens or
    sparrows of the same genus.

    This persistence of character in humming-birds, both as regards
    structure and habit, seems the more remarkable when we consider their
    very wide distribution over a continent so varied in its conditions, and
    where they range from the lowest levels to the limit of perpetual snow
    on the Andes, and from the tropics to the wintry Magellanic district;
    also that a majority of genera inhabit very circumscribed areas--these
    facts, as Dr. Wallace remarks, clearly pointing to a very high
    antiquity.

    It is perhaps a law of nature that when a species (or group) fits itself
    to a place not previously occupied, and in which it is subject to no
    opposition from beings of its own class, or where it attains so great a
    perfection as to be able easily to overcome all opposition, the
    character eventually loses its original plasticity, or tendency to vary,
    since improvement in such a case would be superfluous, and becomes, so
    to speak, crystallized in that form which continues thereafter
    unaltered. It is, at any rate, clear that while all other birds rub
    together in the struggle for existence, the humming-bird, owing to its
    aerial life and peculiar manner of seeking its food, is absolutely
    untouched by this kind of warfare, and is accordingly as far removed
    from all competition with other birds as the solitary savage is removed
    from the struggle of life affecting and modifying men in crowded
    communities. The lower kind of competition affecting hummingbirds, that
    with insects and, within the family, of species with species, has
    probably only served to intensify their unique characteristics, and,
    perhaps, to lower their intelligence.

    Not only are they removed from that indirect struggle for existence
    which acts so powerfully on other families, but they are also, by their
    habits and the unequalled velocity of their flight, placed out of reach
    of that direct war waged on all other small birds by the rapacious
    kinds--birds, mammals, and reptiles. One result of this immunity is that
    humming-birds are excessively numerous, albeit such slow breeders; for,
    as we have seen, they only lay two eggs, and not only so, but the second
    egg is often dropped so long after incubation has begun in the first
    that only one is really hatched. Yet Belt expressed the opinion that in
    Nicaragua, where he observed humming-birds, they out-numbered all the
    other birds together. Considering how abundant birds of all kinds are in
    that district, and that most of them have a protective colouring and lay
    several eggs, it would be impossible to accept such a statement unless
    we believed that humming-birds have, practically, no enemies.

    Another result of their immunity from persecution is the splendid
    colouring and strange and beautiful feather ornaments distinguishing
    them above all other birds; and excessive variation in this direction is
    due, it seems to me, to the very causes which serve to check variation
    in all other directions. In their plumage, as Martin long ago wrote,
    nature has strained at every variety of effect and revelled in an
    infinitude of modifications. How wonderful their garb is, with colours
    so varied, so intense, yet seemingly so evanescent!--the glittering
    mantle of powdered gold; the emerald green that changes to velvet black;
    ruby reds and luminous scarlets; dull bronze that brightens and burns
    like polished brass, and pale neutral tints that kindle to rose and
    lilac-coloured flame. And to the glory of prismatic colouring are added
    feather decorations, such as the racket-plumes and downy muffs of
    Spathura, the crest and frills of Lophornis, the sapphire gorget burning
    on the snow-white breast of Oreotrochilus, the fiery tail of Cometes,
    and, amongst grotesque forms, the long pointed crest-feathers,
    representing horns, and flowing-white beard adorning the piebald
    goat-like face of Oxypogon.

    Excessive variation in this direction is checked in nearly all other
    birds by the need of a protective colouring, few kinds so greatly
    excelling in strength and activity as to be able to maintain their
    existence without it. Bright feathers constitute a double danger, for
    not only do they render their possessor conspicuous, but, just as the
    butterfly chooses the gayest flower, so do hawks deliberately single out
    from many obscure birds the one with brilliant plumage; but the
    rapacious kinds do not waste their energies in the vain pursuit of
    hummingbirds. These are in the position of neutrals, free to range at
    will amidst the combatants, insulting all alike, and flaunting their
    splendid colours with impunity. They are nature's favourites, endowed
    with faculties bordering on the miraculous, and all other kinds, gentle
    or fierce, ask only to be left alone by them.
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