A comprehensive natural history of nature's smallest bird species.
The tiny hummingbird has long been a source of fascination for birdwatchers and naturalists alike. They number 300 species and Ronald Orenstein has a passion for all of them.
Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world. A hummingbird egg is the size of a pea, barely, and the chick that emerges will be smaller than a penny, if that. But these tiny birds pack a powerful engine: a hummingbird's heart beats more than 1,200 times per minute.
Nicknamed the "avian helicopter", a hummingbird's wings beat from 70 times per second in direct flight, to more than 200 times per second when diving. Not surprisingly, that whirlwind of wing power creates a humming sound. To fuel such energy, hummingbirds must eat as much as eight times their body weight on a daily basis, which means visiting an average of 1,000 flowers -- every day -- to get enough nectar.
Hummingbirds are found in North and South America, with the greatest number in Ecuador, although some species breed as far north as Canada. Most species migrate from Mexico to Alaska, a distance of more than 5,000 miles.
In this book Orenstein covers all aspects of hummingbird natural history, their relationship with the plants on which they feed, the miracle of their flight, their elaborate social life and nesting behavior, and their renowned feats of migration.
More than 170 color photographs of these magnificent creatures, taken in the wild, adorn the pages of Hummingbirds. Birders and natural history readers alike will gain new insight into the tiny bird and revel in the stunning images.
Ronald Orenstein is a zoologist, lawyer, wildlife conservationist and an award-winning science author. He has written extensively on a wide range of natural history issues, including as a contributing author to Handbook of the Birds of the World. His most recent books are Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins and Ivory, Horn and Blood. He is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Michael and Patricia Fogden are widely considered the world's finest photographers of hummingbirds. They live in Costa Rica.
In 1957, when I was 10 years old, our family moved to Jamaica, where my father and mother worked together to build one of the first modern resort hotels on the island. For a bookish child interested in natural history, it was a journey to paradise. I was suddenly in a new and brilliant world, full of all sorts of fascinating creatures. Nothing brought that home to me more than a tiny, impossibly exotic bird. Its body glowed emerald-green. Its bill shone brilliant red and its tail stretched out into two extraordinary, frilled black ribbons, longer than the bird itself. I couldn't imagine what it was. I finally found its name in May Jeffrey-Smith's delightful Bird-Watching in Jamaica: Long-Tail Doctor Bird, named for its needle of a bill. Today ornithologists call it the Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). It was my first tropical hummingbird.
It was not my first hummingbird. That was a Rubythroated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) that my grandmother showed me as it hovered among the flowers near our summer cottage in Ontario. I think, though, that it was the Streamertail that focused my childhood interest in animals on the beauty and diversity of birds. A few years later, as a teenager, I received a treasured gift from my grandparents: a copy of Crawford H. Greenewalt's remarkable Hummingbirds (1960), the seminal modern book on the family. Greenewalt was not an ornithologist, but a chemical engineer who rose to be president and CEO of DuPont. He was a pioneer in high-speed flash photography. I remember my excitement as I leafed through his razor-sharp photographs, hand-tipped into the book, showing 65 species of hummingbird (including a spectacular cover photo of my beloved Red-billed Streamertail). What amazing, gorgeous creatures these were!
A decade after that, I found myself on a graduate field study program in Costa Rica. Here was a veritable blizzard of hummingbirds: a Long-billed Hermit (Phaethornis longirostris) whirring unobtrusively along its chosen path through the rainforest undergrowth; a White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) showing off his flashing white collar and tail feathers in repeated display flights, sallying 40 feet (12 m) in the air and back again for the benefit of an unseen female; a Long-billed Starthroat (Heliomaster longirostris) vigorously defending the scarlet blossoms of an Erythrina tree against all comers; a Fiery-throated Hummingbird (Panterpe insignis), high on the Pan-American Highway, zooming to within a foot of me, apparently mistaking my bright red sweater for a flower. After the program ended, my good friend and fellow naturalist Barry Kent Mackay and I spent a memorable morning in a heliconia grove at the La Selva field station on the Caribbean slope, carefully picking some 80 hummingbirds, of well over a dozen species, out of strategically placed mist nets for a study by Dr. Gary Stiles and Dr. Larry Wolf. The birds, I hasten to add, were marked with dabs of paint for later recognition, wondered over, and released unharmed.
In the ensuing years I have been lucky enough to encounter, and marvel at, hummingbirds across the breadth of their range, from flower-filled meadows in the Rockies to damp, dark beech forests in southern Chile. I have spent hours surrounded by hummers in bewildering variety, at feeders in southern Brazil and southeastern Peru. I have seen the largest of them all, the Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), in the Andes, and waded through Cuba's Zapata Swamp in (successful) search of the smallest, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), with the remarkable Orestes Martinez Garcia (known to birders as "el Chino de Zapata"). Though in recent years I have done most of my tropical birding in my wife's home country of Malaysia (where, I keep having to explain, hummingbirds do not occur), hummingbirds remain -- unsurprisingly -- among my favorite creatures. The chance to write the text for this book, therefore, came as a particular pleasure -- especially for the honor of accompanying its magnificent series of photographs by the deans of hummingbird photography, Michael and Patricia Fogden. There are many books about hummingbirds, and I wanted to make this one a bit different. Rather than turn out yet another general natural history of the hummingbird family, I have made the theme of this book the things that make these extraordinary creatures unique among birds.
To do that, I have focused on the most recent scientific research into their relationships, their lives and their chances for survival. Much of this information has not, to my knowledge, appeared in any book for the general reader. In the past few years, scientists have used high speed videography, field experiments and computer modeling to understand just how hummingbirds are able to do some of the highly demanding and difficult things they do. We are uncovering the secrets of how they hover, motionless and seemingly without effort, in mid-air, how they find and remember the locations of hundreds of flowers, how their tongues draw nectar from a flower, how they snap up flying insects in a fraction of a second and how they make sounds not just with their voices, but with their tails. These and other discoveries form the core of this book, and I hope readers will find them as fascinating as I do.
A technical note: the names I use for hummingbirds found in North America (including Central America and the West Indies) follow the online version of the American Ornithologists' Union Checklist of North and Middle American Birds as of March 1, 2014, except that I recognize two species of streamertail in Jamaica, the Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) and the Black-billed Streamertail (T. scitulus) instead of one. For South American species not in the AOU Checklist, I follow the International Ornithological Congress World Bird List (IOC, Gill, F and D Donsker. IOC World Bird List [v 4.1], IOC. doi : 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.1). A complete list of references can be downloaded from my blog.
Acknowledgments Foreword Chapter 1: The Most Extraordinary Birds Chapter 2: How Hummingbirds Evolved Chapter 3: How Hummingbirds Fly Chapter 4: How Hummingbirds Refuel Chapter 5: How Hummingbirds Glow Chapter 6: The World of the Hummingbird Chapter 7: A Future for Hummingbirds Portfolio of Images Further Reading Index