The Hummingbird Family
What is more gentle than a wind in summer? What is more soothing than the pretty hummer That stays one moment in an open flower, And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?
So wrote john keats in 1816. Hummingbirds, which are confined to the Western Hemisphere and were unknown in Europe before the voyages of Columbus, had long since become familiar to cultured Europeans, so the poet could assume that his readers would understand his abbreviated reference to an exotic bird. Yet in the new world discovered by Columbus were many birds that rivaled the hummingbirds in splendor while far exceeding them in size, whose habits were certainly no less interesting, but that remained—and still remain—unknown to the general public not only of Europe but of America itself. How, then, can we explain the strong appeal of hummingbirds?
Undoubtedly they owe their fame to their extreme smallness no less than to their exquisite glittering plumage and unrivaled skill in flight. The superlatively small, like the superlatively large, ever captures our imagination. And the hummingbird family (Trochilidae) includes not only some of the smallest of birds but also the smallest of warm-blooded animals. The distinction of being the tiniest bird in the world belongs to the bee hummingbird of Cuba, nearly half of whose length of two and a quarter inches is contributed by its bill and tail. Hummingbirds of middle size are about as large and heavy as the smallest American flycatchers, while the colossus of the family, the giant hummingbird of the Andes, measures eight and a half inches, which is about the length of a starling or an American catbird. The bee weighs less than two grams (about one-fifteenth of an ounce); the giant, about twenty grams.
Another reason for the hummingbirds’ popularity is the prompt acceptance by certain species, of the conditions created by human settlement. Let a man plant a flower garden almost anywhere from Canada to Argentina and Chile, in the lowlands or mountains, amid humid forests or in irrigated deserts, and before long his bright blossoms will be visited by a tiny, glittering creature that hovers before them with wings vibrated into twin halos while it sucks their sweet nectar. Most of the larger birds whose brilliance should make them famous are, as they are often pursued” by man, far more retiring.
Such acceptance of man and his alterations of the environment, of course, would make hummingbirds familiar only to the people of their homeland in the New World. But they have other qualities, less fortunate for themselves, which brought them wide renown beyond the sea: their minute size and gemlike appearance caused them to be coveted as jewelry and adornments for women’s hats. Early in the nineteenth century they became an important article in the commerce between Europe and tropical America. In one year, a single London dealer imported more than 400,000 skins from the West Indies alone. A principal source of these dried hummingbirds was Colombia, where some of the most lovely species live. Keeping a keen eye on this vast flow of desiccated birds from little-known lands, the cabinet naturalists of Europe detected and described many hitherto unknown species, often naming them for men or women whom they admired or wished to flatter. In this way, many birds of the republican Americas came to bear the names of European princes and noblemen. It is uncertain whether the slaughter of countless millions of hummingbirds for export caused the extermination of any species; but a few are known only from these old trade skins and have not been seen by naturalists in their native homes, perhaps remote Andean valleys.
The approximately 8,700 species of living birds fall into two great groups of almost equal size, one of which ornithologists distinguish as the passerines, a single order including the songbirds, the American flycatchers, and a number of families that are less familiar. The remaining twenty-eight orders of the avian class, ranging in size from ostriches to hummingbirds and including parrots, pigeons, and pheasants, are for convenience lumped together as the nonpasserines. Hummingbirds were for a long while united with swifts in the order Apodiformes. The most obvious characteristic that these two families share is superb power of flight, associated with a peculiar anatomy of the wings in which the part corresponding to our arms is greatly abbreviated, while that which represents the human hand is highly developed and carries by far the larger surface of flight feathers.
Even in their manner of flight, however, hummingbirds and swifts differ greatly. The former have great maneuverability, being able to fly backward or sideward as well as to hover motionless, but they do not ordinarily stay in the air for long intervals. Swifts do not appear capable of all the hummingbirds’ aerobatic feats, but they commonly remain aloft for extended periods, dashing and circling high above the treetops in pursuit of insects. Even where they are numerous, one rarely sees them at rest. Indeed, there is good circumstantial evidence that one species, the common swift of Europe, passes whole nights in the air, evidently taking whatever rest it needs. Moreover, swifts, with their dusky plumage, are among the drabbest of birds, whereas hummingbirds are the most brilliant. Swifts regularly pair, and both sexes perform all the duties of the nest; while pairing is exceptional among hummingbirds, and as a rule, only the females care for the eggs and young.
In view of these and other differences, certain recent classifiers have placed the hummingbird family in an order of its own, the Trochiliformes. And they have set this order, with its single family, at the very head of the nonpasserines, just below the passerines, as the most highly evolved of the twenty-eight nonpasserine orders. This place of honor has usually been assigned to the woodpeckers, another highly specialized and fascinating family of birds. The ancestry of hummingbirds remains in doubt, as their fragile, aerial bodies are not likely to become fossils and the geological record does not enlighten us. That the family is ancient is attested by its many species and wide dispersion over the Western Hemisphere, where doubtless it originated.
With 320 species in 123 genera, the hummingbird family is the largest in this hemisphere, with the single exception of the American flycatchers, of which 367 species are known. The center of abundance of the hummingbird family is the equatorial belt, ten degrees wide, across South America, where more than half of the species are found. Let it not be inferred from this that all hummingbirds are delicate creatures, unable to withstand a touch of frost. Quite the contrary, some are extremely hardy; equatorial South America could not boast so many kinds if it did not include the high Andes of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, with their dazzling array of species, many of which dwell at altitudes where the temperature of the thin atmosphere quickly falls to the freezing point after the sun sets. The hardiest of all reach heights exceeding 15,000 feet, on the verge of the perennial snowfields of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Sangay, and other sublime Andean peaks.
From the equatorial zone the number of kinds of hummingbirds gradually decreases toward the north and south. Costa Rica’s 20,000 square miles of mountainous terrain supports fifty-four species. Mexico, over thirty times as large, has only fifty-one species. In the western United States, thanks to the continuity of its mountain chains with those of tropical and subtropical Mexico, twelve species breed. The vast extent of the United States east of the Mississippi and eastern Canada, more isolated from the center of abundance of hummingbirds in the tropics, has only one species, the rubythroat. Although thirteen kinds of hummingbirds breed in the continental United States, only four do in Canada. And only one species reaches the Strait of Magellan.
Unlike some of the other large avian families that evidently arose in South America, such as the antbirds and manakins, hummingbirds have not clung closely to the mainland and islands almost within sight of it but have colonized more distant islands. They have spread throughout
the West Indies and the Bahamas, where nineteen species occur. Two species have become established in the tiny Juan Fernandez group, in the Pacific 400 miles from the Chilean coast. One of these, the Chilean firecrown, is widely distributed on the South American mainland; the other, known as the Juan Fernandez hummingbird, is endemic to this archipelago, where it has been present so long that it has become differentiated into two well-marked races on islands 100 miles apart.
Hummingbirds owe their wide distribution to their great power of flight and wandering habits no less than to their hardiness. On the Costa Rican farm where I write, some species, including the lovely white-necked Jacobin, appear only at long intervals, become abundant, then mysteriously vanish. They are not known to be long-distance migrants and their journeys have not been traced, but they evidently wander widely in search of abundant flowers. Other hummingbirds, such as the green violet-ear, migrate altitudinally, ascending the mountains to nest in the flowery season, then dropping lower to avoid the wet season’s chilling rains. Anna’s hummingbird of California does just the opposite, breeding at low elevations early in the year, then often moving upward to flower-spangled mountain meadows.
Among the long-distance migrants are the ruby-throated hummingbird, which breeds as far north as southern Canada and occasionally reaches western Panama in winter. Some rubythroats evidently cross the Gulf of Mexico, on a continuous flight of more than 500 miles. Of the several migratory hummingbirds in western North America, the greatest traveler is the rufous, which breeds from southern Oregon and Idaho to southeastern Alaska and in winter reaches the Mexican state of Guerrero, over 2,000 miles by an overland route from its nearest summer home—a prodigious journey for a birdling weighing only three or four grams. At the other extreme of hummingbird distribution, the Chilean firecrown breeds as far south as bleak Tierra del Fuego and migrates northward during the coldest months.
SKUTCH, A. 1973. The life of the Hummingbird. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York. 95 pp.
Checklist of Hummingbirds of Panama
The following 59 species of hummingbirds have been reported from PANAMA. Two are rare or accidental, one is near-threatened, and four are endemic (one of which is vulnerable).
Taxonomy is after Clements 5th edition (updated 2004).
Click on the word “PHOTOS” below for illustrations of selected hummingbird species.(NOTE: If you have a clear photo of any of the species below and would like to submit it for posting on this Operation RubyThroat Web site, please send it via E-mail to PROJECTS with photographer’s name, date & location of photo, and anecdotal info about the bird.)
- White-tipped Sicklebill, Eutoxeres aquila
- Rufous-breasted Hermit, Glaucis hirsuta
- Bronzy Hermit, Glaucis aenea
- Band-tailed Barbthroat, Threnetes ruckeri
- Green Hermit, Phaethornis guy
- Western Long-tailed Hermit, Phaethornis longirostris
- Pale-bellied Hermit, Phaethornis anthophilus
- Stripe-throated Hermit, Phaethornis striigularis
- Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Androdon aequatorialis
- Green-fronted Lancebill, Doryfera ludovicae
- Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Phaeochroa cuvierii
- Violet Sabrewing, Campylopterus hemileucurus —PHOTOS
- White-necked Jacobin, Florisuga mellivora
- Brown Violet-ear, Colibri delphinae
- Green Violet-ear, Colibri thalassinus —PHOTOS
- Green-breasted Mango, Anthracothorax prevostii —PHOTOS
- Black-throated Mango, Anthracothorax nigricollis
- Veraguan Mango, Anthracothorax veraguensis (Endemic)
- Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Chrysolampis mosquitus (Rare or Accidental)
- Violet-headed Hummingbird, Klais guimeti
- Rufous-crested Coquette, Lophornis delattrei
- White-crested Coquette, Lophornis adorabilis
- Green Thorntail, Discosura conversii
- Garden Emerald, Chlorostilbon assimilis
- Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Panterpe insignis
- White-tailed Emerald, Elvira chionura
- Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Eupherusa eximia
- Black-bellied Hummingbird, Eupherusa nigriventris
- Rufous-cheeked Hummingbird, Goethalsia bella (Near-threatened)
- Violet-capped Hummingbird, Goldmania violiceps (Endemic)
- Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica
- Green-crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania fannyi
- Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Damophila julie
- Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Lepidopyga coeruleogularis
- Blue-throated Goldentail, Hylocharis eliciae
- Blue-headed Sapphire, Hylocharis grayi
- Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Amazilia tzacatl
- Blue-chested Hummingbird, Polyerata amabilis
- Charming Hummingbird, Polyerata decora
- Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Saucerottia edward
- Snowcap, Microchera albocoronata
- White-vented Plumeleteer, Chalybura buffonii
- Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Chalybura urochrysia
- White-bellied Mountain-gem, Lampornis hemileucus
- White-throated Mountain-gem, Lampornis castaneoventris (Endemic)
- Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Lampornis calolaema
- Gray-tailed Mountain-gem, Lampornis cinereicauda
- Green-crowned Brilliant, Heliodoxa jacula
- Magnificent (Rivoli’s) Hummingbird, Eugenes fulgens —PHOTOS
- Greenish Puffleg, Haplophaedia aureliae
- Purple-crowned Fairy, Heliothryx barroti
- Long-billed Starthroat, Heliomaster longirostris
- Magenta-throated Woodstar, Calliphlox bryantae
- Purple-throated Woodstar, Calliphlox mitchellii
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris (Rare or Accidental) —PHOTOS
- Gorgeted Woodstar, Chaetocercus heliodor
- Scintillant Hummingbird, Selasphorus scintilla
- Glow-throated Hummingbird, Selasphorus ardens (Endemic & Vulnerable)
- Volcano Hummingbird, Selasphorus flammula
Referencia del listado: http://www.rubythroat.org/ChecklistPanamaMain.html