Hummingbirds, like Wild Turkeys, are true native Americans. They live only in the Americas. Can you imagine the awe and amazement when Columbus and the first European visitors set foot on land in the Indies and glimpsed their first hummingbirds? They were like no other bird the explorers had ever seen and certainly were beyond any bird they had ever imagined. The feisty little birds (not much bigger than some insects) must have seemed surprisingly small to the awestruck observers. They had feathers that glowed and actually changed colors at the slightest turn of the head or body, and they seemed to fly at the speed of light. Furthermore, not only could they fly frontward, backward, up, down, side to side, and upside down, but they could even stand still in midair. I'm sure the explorers were totally enchanted by the aerial antics of these intriguing little birds. Is it any wonder that hummers were the source of great interest and folklore for the earliest visitors to the New World?
These pioneer bird-watchers were so taken with the mystifying birds that they were eager to send word of the "flying marvels" to friends and family, so they took pen in hand to relate the new discoveries to those back home. But how to describe them, and what to call them? They had no name to ascribe to the unfamiliar flying jewels, so they used some of the names their new Indian friends used. Most of them were almost impossible to pronounce, much less to translate into terms that could be understood in Europe. Nevertheless, descriptions of these fascinating small creatures soon appeared in letters, journals, and official reports.
Undoubtedly, Christopher Columbus was the first European of note to make mention of the avian wonders. He, too, found it difficult to describe them. The entry in his travel journal on October 21, 1492, said rather simply: "Little birds... so different from ours it is a marvel." No doubt, it was Columbus himself who took back to Europe the first dried specimens of hummingbirds so those at home could see for themselves these tiny marvels.
A Hummer by Any Other Name
In their letters back home, the Spanish explorers gave hummers imaginative and picturesque names in their own language. Four of the most popular were: picaflor, meaning "flower piercer"; chupaflor, "flower sucker" or "sipper"; and chuparrosa or chupamyrto, "sucker of roses and myrtle." Even today those are the four names most often heard in Spanish-speaking countries of Middle America. Another charming and descriptive Spanish name is joyas voladores, "flying jewels." In Brazil, where Portuguese is the language, early settlers coined the name chupamel, "honey sipper." The lovely Portuguese name that is still used today is beija-flor, "flower kisser."
Pietro Martire de Anghiera was an Italian scholar who served Queen Isabella as diplomatic envoy and tutor to young court pages. In that capacity he had access to all the written reports from returned voyagers describing these unbelievable birds. He noted that the voyagers, one and all, marveled that there could be a bird tinier than the ones Europeans had always regarded as the smallest birds in the world, the kinglet and the wren (both called regolo), at 3.5 to 4 inches, bill to tail.
Just over a century later, the first English-born American to write about hummingbirds was none other than Captain John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown Colony in Virginia and the colony's chief historian. The first of his several volumes was published in London in 1608. It was followed in 1624 by a general history of Virginia, New England, and Bermuda. Even though he didn't say so, the bird of which he wrote was surely the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, since it is the only one that is seen regularly east of the Mississippi River. Of course, at that point in time the bird had not been officially named. Smith was enchanted by the bird's small size and described it as "Scarce so big as a wren and less than a kinglet," two familiar birds to which he knew Europeans could relate.
No one knows for sure who came up with the name "hummingbird," but it was almost certainly first applied to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird by English colonists on the eastern seaboard of North America. Thus the name by which we know the entire family of Trochilidae was first bestowed on the ruby-throat, a species with exceptionally sonorous flight. Had English-speaking people first seen living hummingbirds in the tropics, where many fly more silently, we would probably know them today by a different name.
By sometime in the 1630s, "hum bird" and "humming bird" were in use in the colonists' speech, and "hummer" soon followed. William Wood first used Humbird on the printed page in his book New Englands Prospects, published in London in 1634: "For colour shee is glorious as the Rainebowe, as shee flies shee makes a little humming noise like a humble bee; wherefore shee is called Humbird." Wood traveled to Massachusetts Colony in 1630, wrote the book, and returned to England to see it published. Wood's Humbird was the rubythroat, since it is the only one with which he could have had contact. And so, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird became one of the first avian species celebrated in American literature.
The French called it oiseau mouche—a bird with the quality of a fly. In Quebec in 11634, a Jesuit missionary, Paul Le Jenne, wrote of oiseau mouche but declared that it should be translated as "flower bird" rather than "fly bird." He said the hummer was "one of the rarities of the country and a little prodigy of nature."
No matter what one labels these marvels of the bird world—picaflor, beija flor, chuparrosa, chupamel, oiseau mouche—they are truly joyas voladores, "flying jewels," that continue to charm observers today even as they did European explorers more than 500 years ago.
Since the rubythroat was the only species in eastern North America, it was the species of the English colonists. They first used "northern" and "red-throated" as modifiers to designate the species in common terms. Later, John James Audubon and Thomas Nuttall, ornithologists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, gave the bird the common name by which we know it today, "Ruby-throated Hummingbird," for its red gorget (throat patch).
In Mexico it is sometimes called chupamirto de fuego, "myrtle sipper color of fire." Other names it has been called are "common hummingbird" and "rubythroat." Hummingbirds were once known as kingbirds, for the regal way in which they put other birds to flight.
The Cherokee people of the southeastern United States knew the rubythroat as tsa-lu tsi-skwa, "tobacco bringer." Legend has it that suddenly tobacco vanished from the land of the Cherokee and none could be found. Since the people used tobacco for medicinal purposes as well as for pleasure and important tribal ceremonies, they missed it sorely. The tale relates that their beloved elder became ill, and nothing could ease his pain but tobacco. Finally, a medicine man who could magically turn himself into a hummingbird volunteered to go and search for the precious life-saving leaves. Sure enough, the little bird found them and brought back not only leaves but also seeds for replanting. Their elder was saved from an untimely death, and once again the people had tobacco.
Comte Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the most famous French naturalist of the eighteenth century, insisted on using French instead of Latin to describe birds. His name for the Rubythroated Hummingbird was simply Le Rubis, "the Ruby."
Scientific classification of plants and animals as we know it today actually began in biblical times when Moses set down the features that determined if animals were or were not fit for food (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). The ancient Hebrew laws set down in the Old Testament aligned animals by habitat—as creatures of land, water, or air—and as clean or unclean. Much later, Carolus Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth-century botanist of Sweden, patterned his modern-era scientific method of classifying plants and animals after those Hebrew laws. Linnaeus is recognized worldwide today as the father of taxonomy. His system gives each individual type of plant or animal a name and a meaningful place in relation to others of the same general sort.
One of the original species Linnaeus listed in his tenth edition of Systema Naturae in 1758 was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which he called Trochilus Colubris. Since he had never seen the bird in person, he based the name on descriptions of the species published by Mark Catesby and George Edwards, two naturalists of the early eighteenth century. The bird was reclassified in 1854 as Archilochus by Ludwig Reichenbach, director of the Dresden Zoological Museum. Almost a century and a half later the name still stands. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is officially known in scientific circles today as Archilochus colubris, and there are no known subspecies.
Archilochus is Greek for "chief brigand." It was coined from archos, meaning "chief," or "first in importance," and lochus, "ambush" or "a company of men." It is thought that Reichenbach chose this Latin word because the bird steals pollen from flowers and then dashes away. The term colubris is the Latinized form of a South American Indian word for these birds, colibri. The Taino people of the Bahamas were the first tribe encountered by Christopher Columbus in the New World. They translated colibri to mean "sky spirit," "magic sky bird," "god bird," or "sun god bird."
The Rubytbroat as Icon
Further testimony of the hummingbird's appeal to humans is our use of it as an icon on the objects of beauty that surround our daily lives. From the time the first sagamores greeted the Puritan colonists on the shores of New England, the Rubythroated Hummingbird has decorated our lives in many ways. Those great men among the American Indians wore the beautiful little birds as ear adornments, actually making earrings of the birds. Not just a likeness of the bird but the entire body of the bird dangled from their earlobes. Its iridescent feathers were considered a great thing of beauty to be flaunted.
Rubythroat skins were so revered in those days, they were exclusively reserved for the tribal leaders. In Mexico, the Aztec war god was recognized by the bracelet of dazzling hummingbird feathers on his left wrist. Members of Aztec royal families wore cloaks of glittering hummingbird feathers. Later, in the nineteenth century, rubythroat skins, as well as those of other hummingbirds, were in high demand to be used as decorations on women's hats, bags, jewelry, fans, and gowns in Europe and in the New World.
Athletic teams all over the United States and Canada have chosen many different birds as their mascots or symbols, from eagles to roadrunners to cardinals; however, I find no record of any athletic team choosing the Ruby-throated Hummingbird as a mascot. In my opinion it would be a good bird to choose because of its agility and speed of flight. Imagine the headlines after a game between the North Carolina Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and the St. Louis Cardinals: "The Hummers have done it again! 'So and so' knocked that ball right out of the stadium. It went sailing through the air as if on gossamer wings."
Even though they are not chosen as athletic icons, today one may walk into almost any gift shop and see Ruby-throated Hummingbird likenesses on many, many objects, from stationery and greeting cards to fine works of art. I have composed a list of all the objects on which I can remember seeing some rendition of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird: stationery, notecards, greeting cards, dishes, mugs, candle holders, candles, Christmas ornaments, clocks, wristwatches, wind chimes, socks, T-shirts, women's blouses, scarves, button covers, doormats, mailboxes, house numbers, tiles, stepping stones, lampshades, decorative name plaques, all kinds of jewelry (including pins, bracelets, earrings, charms, and necklaces), light switchplates, wind socks, weather vanes, ornamental flags, magnets, quilling art, sun catchers, blown-glass figurines, porcelain figurines, keychains, wood carvings, faucet handles, rubber stamps, jigsaw puzzles, thermometers, placemats, napkins, handpainted handbags and tote bags, bars of soap, calendars, needlepoint and embroidery, blankets, bookmarks, coloring books, and of course, bird books and fine works of art. In fact, many of these objects decorate my own home.
The United States Post Office even got into the act. In 1992 it issued a series of first-class postage stamps portraying five different species of hummers: Ruby-throated, Broad-billed, Costa's, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. One of America's leading artists, Don Balke, was chosen to design the stamps. From his home in rural Wisconsin he had ample opportunity to study his subjects, especially the rubythroat. His painstaking attention to detail is obvious in his work for the Official National Audubon Society Hummingbirds Collection.
From the official proofcard for the rubythroat stamp I quote: "No other bird has captured the imagination of mankind as completely as the hummingbird. Birdwatchers are enraptured by the little birds, with their bright coloration, extraordinary flying antics and minute size. The artwork on this Proofcard and accompanying stamp salutes the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, captivating gem of the East."
As you can see, hummingbirds hold a fascination for humans that cannot be matched by any other family of birds. Besides all the reasons already mentioned, hummingbirds give us many chances to view them. Since they live in the fast lane, so to speak, and must eat often to survive, they are among the earliest of birds to rise in the morning and among the latest to retire in the evening. From early in the day to late evening, throughout their breeding season, they are all about us in our gardens, buzzing around our flowers or our hummingbird feeders. No wonder we are so enthralled by them. Robert Ridgway summed it up best: hummers are, without doubt, "the most remarkable group of birds in the entire world."