Hummingbirds: Pugnacious and Bejeweled Sun-Angels

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Having recently returned from a two-week expedition into the rainforests and mountains of Peru, I have come back once again impressed by the country’s awesome diversity of bird species: nearly 2000 species of feathered jewels scattered across an unparalleled landscape approximately three times the size of California.  With 87 of the world’s 104 climate zones, Peru encompasses the world’s driest desert and the second wettest locality on the planet.  (The wettest point on Earth is purported to be Mawsynram, India with a yearly average rainfall of 12 meters!)  The late Ted Parker, the well-respected American field ornithologist who was killed in 1993 in a plane crash in western Ecuador, once said, “Peru offers bird enthusiasts more than any other country in the world.  Being here is like being a child visiting a huge store filled with new and fascinating toys.”  For birdwatchers, Peru is paradise.

During the June/July expedition, I observed Andean condors, hoatzins, torrent ducks, and much more.  Alas, no cock-of-the-rock and no harpy eagle … this time!  For today’s article, however, I would like to focus briefly on the hummingbirds – 120 types known to science.  They occupy 42 pages in my copy of a top field-guide called Birds of Peru that was published in 2007 by Princeton University Press.  In size, Peruvian hummers range from miniscule (the short-tailed woodstar, Myrmia micrura, 6 cm in length) to enormous (the so-called giant hummingbird, Patagona gigas, over 21 cm in length).  I’ve seen the latter species in the High Andes, likening its whirring wings to the blades of a fearsome helicopter hovering over the blossoms of low-lying montane plants.  And you gotta love the common names assigned by ornithologists to these Peruvian hummingbirds: sapphirewings, emeralds, jewelfronts, topazes, violetears, coquettes, brilliants, sunbeams, hillstars, starfrontlets, sunangels, pufflegs, comets, metaltails, and fairies.  Who says that scientists cannot wax poetic when observing the eye-catching beauty of the natural world!

Compare all that richness in Peru to the species of hummingbird native to Mexico (58) and to eastern North America (just one – the ruby-throated).  Hummingbirds illustrate an ecological principle that applies, generally, to many other groups of organisms such as orchids, worms, beetles, and primates.  As one approaches the tropics, the number of species in each group increases dramatically.  Why?  Though scientists have argued for years over various hypotheses, the reasons all boil down to two related evolutionary explanations: over long periods of time, lots of jobs to do in the tropics with lots of energy available to do them.

Many of my readers may have noticed the pugnacious behaviors of hummers.  Feisty, fearless, and raucous, they will often pursue invaders of their territories, including house cats and humans, to chase them off.  These very behaviors attracted the full attention of pre-Columbian empires that then honored them in their iconography.  In Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli, represented as a hummingbird, was a god of war, a sun god, and the protector of Tenochtitlan (in modern-day México City) whose fearsome qualities could only be assuaged through human sacrifice.  In Inca mythology, the hummingbird was referred to as the “bird of the Sun God” because it sacrificed itself during a terrible worldwide drought, shedding tears that reflected the devastation across Earth to the gods and, thereby, convinced the Heavens to bring back the rain.  Thus, we have admired the qualities of hummingbirds for centuries upon centuries.

Pugnacious and bejeweled wonders in a diminutive package of feathers.  These are the hummingbirds, one of the wonders of the world’s biodiversity for their distinctive ecology and evolution.