Flying Jewels: Where Hummingbird Colors Come From

Discover the clever optical trick that gives hummingbirds their characteristic iridescence, among other hummingbird facts.

| October 2014

  • Sapphire-spangled Emerald hummingbird
    Many hummingbirds have a "bib" of especially iridescent feathers on their chests, making them more vibrant when viewed by a rival hummingbird from the front.
    Photo by Nick Athanas
  • Hummingbirds
    "Hummingbirds" by Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor and Sheri L. Williamson is the first book to profile all 338 known species of hummingbird, with life-size photos and detailed species profiles for each.
    Cover courtesy Harper Design

  • Sapphire-spangled Emerald hummingbird
  • Hummingbirds

Discover hummingbird facts and beautiful life-size pictures of hummingbirds in the aptly-titled Hummingbirds (Harper Design, 2014) by Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor and Sheri L. Williamson. Boasting detailed species profiles that include information about behavior, plumage and habitat, as well as population statistics and flight maps, Hummingbirds is stuffed with enough hummingbird facts to satisfy even the most avid birder. The following excerpt is from the Introduction.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are tiny, captivating, vibrant, and pugnacious. They include the smallest birds in the world and many that are sublimely beautiful, with glittering, iridescent plumage ornamented with showy tufts and plumes. They have unique flying skills and a rare ability to enter a state of torpor. The smallest species have the highest metabolic rate of any warm-blooded animal and spend much of their life on a knife edge, often within hours of death by starvation. If they were any smaller, they would be unable to produce energy quickly enough to survive. Hummingbirds have extraordinary appeal, and their extravagant names, full of allusions to jewels, fairies, and sunshine, give an idea of the way in which they have captured the imagination. Fiery Topaz, Crowned Woodnymph, Empress Brilliant, Shining Sunbeam, and Long-tailed Sylph are good examples, as is the ancient Aztec name huitzitzil (rays of the sun). The Mexican chuparosa (rose-sucker) and Brazilian beija flor (flower-kisser) are picturesque descriptions of the birds’ feeding behavior, while the Cuban zum-zum is an apt description of how they sound in flight.

The beauty of hummingbirds appealed to artists, authors, and poets in the Western world, as expressed in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Within my Garden, rides a Bird.”

This fascination proved deadly for the birds, however, as it became fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century to use their feathered skins to decorate women’s hats. In South America, millions of hummingbirds were slaughtered and then exported to Europe. Many specimens found their way into museums, including some species described in this book that have never been seen since.

Today, hummingbirds continue to captivate us, but luckily for the species they now attract tourists rather than trappers. The growth in hummingbird tourism has escalated thanks to the rapid proliferation of hummingbird feeders in locations all over North, Central, and South America. It has never been easier to see rare or spectacular hummingbirds at close quarters than it is today — go to the right feeders in the right country, and it is even possible to see such iconic species as the Crimson Topaz, Gorgeted Sunangel, Wire-crested Thorntail, Marvelous Spatuletail, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Booted Racket-tail, and Velvet-purple Coronet.

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