Why do we love 'em?

November, 1997

Published in the first issue of the Hummingbird Society's journal/magazine, The Hummingbird Connection.

Author:  Frances Hamilton Oates

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

                                ---Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Why, someone asks, do people like hummingbirds so much?

There's no question people do love these little birds—not just birdwatchers, but many different kinds of people. Of all the birds pictured and written about in books and periodicals, hummingbirds get the biggest response from readers. Of all the birds people try to attract into their gardens with feeders and planting, hummingbirds are the most fervently sought.

This fascinatioin is far from new. The Aztecs decorated ceremonial cloaks with the brilliant plumage of hummingbirds, Robert and Esther Tyrrell tell us in their books of hummer photographs. Ancient Mexicans believed that warriors who died in battle were transformed into hummingbirds. And in the late 1800's, fashionable ladies were fond of feather fans decorated with whole hummingbirds (the same ladies, no doubt whose love for plumed hats nearly wiped out certain herons and egrets).

Today, business selling products ranging from women's hand lotion to depth finders to computer software acknowledge the attention-getting power of hummingbirds by using their pictures in logs and ads—it doesn't take sophisticated market research to prove that page-riffling people will stop short to look at a hummingbird.

Why? To paraphrase the poet, let us count the reasons.

*  Hummingbirds are tiny. It takes only a glance at the popularity of toy trains and dollhouses to prove that both men and women are delighted by miniatures.

*  Hummingbirds are valiant. Their fearlessness in the face of threats from far larger creatures arouses immediate respect—hummers defending nest territories have been seen to attack eagles in flight.

*  Hummingbirds are incomparable flyers, swift and acrobatic (hence, such species names as bronze-tailed comet). For centuries, debate raged among naturalists about whether hummers could really fly backward—the evidence of people's eyes seemed to show they did, but the scientists argued that it was impossible. Finally, in the mid-20th century, cameras were developed that could 'freeze' hummingbird wings in flight—and sure enough, the eyes had it. Hummingbirds are able to fly both backward and straight up and down because they can pivot their wings at the shoulder (most other birds maneuver from the wrist out).

*  Hummingbirds are as colorful as glittering jewels—and coupled with their tiny size, these brilliant, glowing colors led inevitably to comparisons with rare gemstones. When Europeans discovered hummingbirds during their explorations of the New World, they immediately adopted the natives' adoration of these avian gems. Bejeweled names were given to many species, from the familiar rubythroat of the U.S. East Coast to the more exotic sapphire-spangled emerald, crimson topaz, and amethyst-throated sunangel.

*  Hummingbirds feed on flower nectar, a practice that places them with sprites and elves squarely in the land of make-believe. The Portugese call them "flower kissers;" the individual names of many hummer species refer to tiny spirits:  black-eared fairy, long-tailed sylph, violet-capped woodnymph.

*  Hummingbird wings really do hum, leading people in many countries to name them for the sound. In Puerto Rico, for example, a hummer is a "zumbador" or "zunzun." In Hispaniola, the wing sound and the favorite food are combined in one local name:  "zumbaflor."

*  Hummingbirds build nests with the fragility of fine porcelain, woven of cobwebs and rootlets and ornamented with bits of lichen. Like the bodies of the birds themselves, these beautiful little nests are considered to have special powers and have been used for centuries in medicines and love amulets.

*  Hummingbirds are personable, and very curious. If a bouquet of flowers adorns a patio table, hummingbirds may visit even when someone is sitting there. When a feeder is removed for filling, the returning human is likely to be met with an indignant hummer, zigzagging through the air where the feeder usually hangs. Time and again, people who haven't hung their feeders yet in spring find hummingbirds hovering at their windows, staring inside until someone rushes out to remedy the problem.

There they are, a lot of reasons why people love hummingbirds. But all of them together seem inadequate to explain the depth of our fascination. Maybe the French have the answer in their famous phrase, Je ne sais quoi, literally meaning, "I don't know what." The dictionary says this refers to "something elusive, or hard to describe or express."  For example, a woman whose appeal is far grater than her physical beauty is said to have Je ne sais quoi.

So what is it hummingbirds have that makes them so special? That's your answer:  a shrug and, Je ne sais quoi.

link to view The Hummingbird Connection, member magazine of the Hummingbird Society











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