Birds of America

What Mr. Audubon Thought of Hummingbirds

Descriptions of these nectar-sipping birds, written in an 1800s mindset.

John James Audubon is even more poetic than usual in his characterization of the hummingbird. An eye for detail and a penchanct for the idyllic, he explored the oddities found in each tiny bird. Here are four species originally chronicled by the ornithologist-cum-painter.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: "The Curious Florist"

Recounting a Ruby-throated's hungry hover, Audubon writes: "No sooner has the returning sun again introduced the vernal season, and caused millions of plants to expand their leaves and blossoms to his genial beams, than the little Humming-bird is seen advancing on fairy wings, carefully visiting every opening flower-cup, and, like a curious florist, removing from each the injurious insects that otherwise would ere long cause their beauteous petals to droop and decay."

 

Mango Hummingbird: "The Greatest Ornament of the Garden"

In warm climates where Bigonias and other tubular flowers bloom all year and insects sport in the sunshine, Audubon writes that Mango Hummingbirds "are the greatest ornaments of the gardens and forests. Such in most cases is the brilliancy of their plumage, that I am unable to find apt objects of comparison unless I resort to the most brilliant gems and the richest metals." 

 

Columbian Hummingbird: "Metallic Feathers of Glossy Green"

The Columbian Hummingbird is known today as the Anna's Hummingbird. Audubon called it "Columbian" because someone sent specimens to him from the region of the Columbia River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean up in northern Oregon, says bird expert and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman. Audubon writes, "My good friend Thomas Nuttall while travelling from the Rocky Mountains toward California happened to observe on a low oak bush a Humming bird's nest on which the female was sitting Having cautiously approached he secured the bird with his hat The male in the meantime fluttered angrily around but as my friend had not a gun he was unable to procure it."

 

Ruff-necked Hummingbird: "The Magic Carbuncle of Glowing Fire"

In describing Ruff-neck males, Audubon employs the words of his friend, Mr. Thomas Nuttall: "We now for the first time (April 16) saw the males in numbers, darting, burring, and squeaking in the usual manner of their tribe; but when engaged in collecting its accustomed sweets in all the energy of life, it seemed like a breathing gem, or magic carbuncle of glowing fire, stretching out its gorgeous ruff, as if to emulate the sun itself in splendour."

Explore the rest of John James Audubon's Birds of America