Queen Victoria​ was not readily amused. She referred to her own children as ‘nasty’ and ‘frog-like’. In portraits her face has the expression of one who has seen a great deal and would prefer to burn most of it. There was an exception, though, and it was the hummingbird. At the Great Exhibition in 1851, the ornithologist John Gould mounted a display of 1500 hummingbirds: about 320 different species, stuffed and arranged in lifelike poses. The queen was beguiled. ‘It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little hummingbirds,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘their variety and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.’ Dickens, too, was impressed by their beauty, and by the power a fine specimen conferred on its owner. ‘Those who have secured a specimen considered unique,’ he said, ‘are looked on with the same sort of admiring envy that gathers round the owner of a genuine Correggio.’ Ruskin’s awe at Gould’s exhibit was such that it left him despondent. ‘Had I devoted myself to birds, I might have produced something myself worth doing … If only I could have seen a hummingbird fly, it would have been an epoch in my life.’

A male bee hummingbird

Their Lilliputian beauty is enough to stir the most stolid queen – but the hummingbird is far more fine than human eyes can see. Hummingbirds are the smallest living bird. The most miniature of these miniatures, the male bee hummingbird, weighs less than two grams, about as much as half a teaspoonful of sugar. Hatched after eighteen days of incubation from an egg the size of a chickpea, his wings grow to barely three centimetres across. He is blue in body, with a gorget (the feathers at the throat) that turns red during the mating season; his plumage is iridescent, changing colour in changing light. Many of the 361 known species of hummingbird have a similar iridescence: among them, the male red-tailed comet, with its long, forked, golden-red tail; and the wine-throated hummingbird, with its hot pink bib, the hind feathers of which flare outwards from the neck like a cravat. They are a shining race, and they see one another more vividly than we do. The majority of birds have cones in their retina that allow them to perceive a spectrum of ultraviolet colours invisible to us; hummingbirds see an ultra-violet yellow, for instance, which is as different from the yellow we see as green is from blue. A study from Yale earlier this year reported that ‘the diversity of bird-visible colours in hummingbird plumages exceeds the known diversity of colours found in the plumages of all other bird species combined.’ There is no bird species in the world more colourful.

Queen Victoria’s admiration was the beginning of a craze. Found only in the Americas, no wild hummingbirds had ever existed in Europe; they were both ravishing and new, and the world of fashion seized on them hungrily. London and Paris went wild for them; they were pinned to turbans and arranged in groups on summer bonnets (Harpers magazine suggested in 1887 that you might arrange your hummingbird spread-eagled across the crown of your hat, as if it had just dropped down from the sky, an ‘appealing expression’ on its face). Whole heads were mounted and used as earrings and necklaces; their feathers trimmed bodices and capes and their faces peered out from furs. As more specimens flooded the marketplace, they became increasingly affordable. Stuffed with sawdust and displayed in trays in the less salubrious Saturday-night markets at a cost of tuppence a bird, they were, the Times wrote in 1894, ‘so cheap that even the ragged girl from the neighbouring slums could decorate her battered hat, like any fine lady, with some bright-winged bird of the tropics’. An American journal noted in 1875 that ‘Lady Burdett Coutts certifies from personal knowledge that one Parisian milliner uses forty thousand hummingbirds every season.’ The natural history writer Jon Dunn, in his brilliant The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds (Bloomsbury, £20), records that in 1888 an auction house in London sold 400,000 hummingbird skins in one single, bloody afternoon.

As the trade grew, so too did disquiet from ornithologists and wildlife campaigners. In 1912, all 96 US senators in Washington received a parcel; in it was a card to which were glued two one-cent coins and the skin of a hummingbird. It came with a letter protesting the sale each year in Europe of tens of thousands of ‘American Hummingbirds’, many of them, the letter said, for less than two cents apiece. In Britain, Emily Williamson founded the Plumage League, a society of women who pledged not to wear bird feathers on their hats, which in 1889 became the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds. Punch mocked its objective – ‘Not a very severe self-denying ordinance that, Ladies?’ – but it only grew in ambition and determination, and in 1904 was granted a Royal Charter to become the RSPB.

Around one in ten of all hummingbird species are now endangered or critically endangered. They are worth protecting; we have loved them for a long time. Some of the earliest inhabitants of the American south-west, the Navajo and Mojave peoples, have old stories that salute the hummingbird. The Mojave myth says that at the beginning of human life all people lived in darkness underground. They dwelled in the earth until a hummingbird, released into the tunnels above them, navigated the narrow twisting passages and led them up into the bright of the day. They are guiding birds and have an affinity with light. The Navajo also regard the hummingbird as an explorer: its wild swoops, and those moments in which it soars up only to plummet downwards – which we now believe to be a mating ritual, allowing the male to display all his ultraviolet colours to his mate – are attempts to peer above the blue of the sky. The hummingbird has never succeeded in reaching past the blue, but that has never stopped them trying.

Their name in English is testament to their speed. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they were unsure what they were seeing: bird or insect or something in between? The French, unflatteringly, called them oiseaux mouches, ‘bird flies’; in Brazil, the smallest were besourinhos, or ‘little beetles’, and in Spanish picaflores, ‘flower stingers’. The English called them humbirds, for the blur of noise their wings make as they beat at up to eighty times per second. They are turbine creatures; the hummingbird heart pumps 1200 times a minute. With a metabolic rate 77 times faster than our own, they need to feed almost continuously on flower nectar and small insects – mosquitos, ants, the occasional wasp. At night, therefore, or if the weather becomes too cold, many hummingbirds enter torpor to protect themselves from starvation, slowing their metabolisms almost to a halt. They become chill to the touch and motionless; if you held one you might think it was dead. Creatures of superlatives, they are record-breaking even in stillness; the temperature of one black metaltail hummingbird was recorded as 3.3°C, the lowest ever observed in a non-hibernating mammal or bird.

There is nothing I admire more than evolution. But it’s difficult, more than with any other living thing, to imagine hummingbirds beginning as archaebacteria among primordial murk, painstakingly working over millions of years to grow bright wings. They seem as if they were made in an instant, a spark of genius from an extravagant god. But in fact they are still evolving exceptionally fast. The tribe that includes the bee hummingbird, for instance, originated only five million years ago but has already diversified into as many as 35 species. A recent study predicted that, if left undisturbed, hummingbirds could evolve twice as many species as we have today, before reaching an equilibrium at around 767.

Charles Darwin ended his Origin of Species with these words: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ There might be many more hummingbirds, if we can curb our destructive tendencies long enough for them to come into iridescent being.

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Vol. 45 No. 2 · 19 January 2023

Before the Plumage League and the Society for the Protection of Birds, mentioned by Katherine Rundell, children were active in campaigning against the use of bird feathers and skins in women’s hats (LRB, 3 November 2022). A national movement of children’s bird and animal welfare clubs was sponsored by provincial weekly newspapers. This began with the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle’s Dicky Bird Society in 1876; within five years the club had fifty thousand members, each of whom had signed a promise ‘to be kind to all living things, to protect them to the utmost of my power, to feed the birds in the winter time, and never to take or destroy a nest. I also promise to get as many boys and girls as possible to join the Dicky Bird Society.’ The society grew from the Weekly Chronicle’s ‘Children’s Corner’, edited by ‘Uncle Toby’, the pen name of W.E. Adams, a former Chartist (the pseudonym was a nod to the character in Tristram Shandy). Imitators soon followed, including the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph’s Kind Hearted Brigade and the Portsmouth Times’s League of Love.

Andrew Hobbs
Preston, Lancashire

Vol. 44 No. 23 · 1 December 2022

Katherine Rundell’s piece on the hummingbird could only have been enhanced by a mention of its name in Brazilian Portuguese: beija flor – ‘flower-kisser’ (LRB, 3 November).

Inigo Kilborn
Collobrières, France

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