When I was in college I read an article, I believe in Scientific American, that I have never been able to forget. It was about hummingbirds, or rather, a mystery about them. The scientists described a migration of a certain species of hummingbirds that traveled more than 1,000 miles across open ocean. The scientists couldn’t figure out how they could make it. Calculating how much energy they would have to burn during transit, it just wasn’t possible that they could complete the flight without stopping to refuel. Yet, they did.
The authors of the article explained that the littlest bird’s energy burn rate was so high during flight that at night, when sleeping, they had to lower their body temperatures to hibernation levels just to avoid starving to death before breakfast.
I haven’t bothered to keep tabs on whether the scientists have yet figured this out. The truth is, I savor the mystery. It’s like watching the birds themselves from my mother’s back porch in Nevada—how they hover, and then extend their beaks like Olympic fencers into the red feeder my mother fills with sugar water. The pitch of their hum changes when they extend themselves. I say a silent blessing of thanks for their existence.
My feeling of awe has been shared by humans for a very long time, but few have done more about it than a fellow named John Gould. A nineteenth-century British scientist and artist, his paintings of these avian wonders now fetch thousands of dollars. Our most recent Levenger Press offering is a facsimile of 58 of Gould’s prints, each presented individually in a portfolio box so you can frame them if you wish. (Guess what my mom is getting for Mother’s Day.)
John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, wrote the essay that’s part of the portfolio. Like the creature he has studied and documented, John’s essay is a little gem. He tells us, for example, the speed that these tiny specks of turbo-charge can reach: usually 55 miles an hour, but as fast as 93 mph. Their wingbeat rate averages 80 per second—and that’s just when they’re hovering.
And we humans thought we were hard-working.
Levenger Press: We Americans like everything supersized—our coffees, our flat-screen TVs, our SUVs. Why is there such a fascination for tiny feathered creatures no bigger than our thumbs?
John Fitzpatrick: There’s something magical about such a little bird, the tiniest in the world. With other birds, you can see their wings, their feet. With hummingbirds, you see this speck, often flying backwards, and hovering. They’re doing all these things that other birds can’t do. They’re little gemstones in flight.
LP: Who is more taken with hummingbirds, women or men?
JF: The passion for hummingbirds is sex-blind. I’ve led a lot of tours of hummingbird watchers, of both sexes and of all ages. Even bankers and lawyers—everybody’s captivated by them.
LP: Have they signaled changes in ecosystems and climate patterns the way other birds have?
JF: Probably not, given that hummingbirds are mostly tropical and reach their peak diversities in tropical environments, which show less change in habitats. But hummingbirds are highly attuned to seasonal change, as they’re attentive to peaks in flowering. (What also lures us to hummingbirds is their attraction to colorful flowers.) They will shift elevations, going up and down as needed according to seasonal conditions. The hummingbirds in the northeastern United States disappear entirely during our winter and go to Venezuela. They are amazingly mobile.
LP: Why are John Gould’s hummingbird illustrations so highly regarded?
JF: For one thing, Gould illustrated all of the hummingbirds, and he did them exquisitely, with the brilliant colors that represent them. He was able to capture their allure in an elegant, lively way. I think the fact that he painted them before there were photographs of them also appeals to people. It’s one reason why we like our Audubons.
LP: You personally discovered a new species of hummingbird, the Royal Sunangel. What did it feel like to encounter a new member of the pantheon?
JF: We were on a ridge top in northern Peru, where we had already discovered a new bird, a wren. But we kept seeing this particular hummingbird. This was 1975, and there were no good field guides at the time, so on our last day there, we netted the hummingbird so that we could compare it with species in museums once we got back to the U.S. There was no match, and because the bird we had netted was a male, we didn’t know the genus. So the following July, we designed a new expedition just for this—to get the female specimen, so that we could determine the genus. On that trip, we also discovered three other bird species. It was the hummingbird that had drawn us back.
JF: At the Cornell Lab, we provide high-level scientific training to professionals, but we’re also seriously trying to engage the ordinary citizen into doing science. eBird is one way we do that. It’s now the world’s largest biodiversity database, and hummingbirds are part of it. In fact, every species of hummingbird has been submitted to the database. We get 300,000 to 400,000 checklists of birds a month in eBird. There are now more than 150 million observations. It’s birds as messengers of science—and those messengers include the littlest birds of them all.
John Fitzpatrick, it turns out, is as much a Renaissance man as John Gould (who was an adviser to Darwin). He, too, has tried his hand at capturing hummingbirds with paint, as you will see here:
The rest of us can be more than content with enjoying John Gould’s painterly odes to these tiny Type-A birds.