Plate 47

Ruby-throated Humming Bird

Where is the person who, on seeing this lovely little creature moving on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to another, with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course over our extensive continent, and yielding new delights wherever it is seen;--where is the person, I ask of you, kind reader, who, on observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and instantly turn his mind with reverence toward the Almighty Creator, the wonders of whose hand we at every step discover, and of whose sublime conceptions we everywhere observe the manifestations in his admirable system of creation?--There breathes not such a person; so kindly have we all been blessed with that intuitive and noble feeling--admiration! 

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. Poised in the air, it is observed peeping cautiously, and with sparkling eye, into their innermost recesses, whilst the etherial motions of its pinions, so rapid and so light, appear to fan and cool the flower, without injuring its fragile texture, and produce a delightful murmuring sound, well adapted for lulling the insects to repose. Then is the moment for the Humming-bird to secure them. Its long delicate bill enters the cup of the flower, and the protruded double-tubed tongue, delicately sensible, and imbued with a glutinous saliva, touches each insect in succession, and draws it from its lurking place, to be instantly swallowed. All this is done in a moment, and the bird, as it leaves the flower, sips so small a portion of its liquid honey, that the theft, we may suppose, is looked upon with a grateful feeling by the flower, which is thus kindly relieved from the attacks of her destroyers. 

The prairies, the fields, the orchards and gardens, nay, the deepest shades of the forests, are all visited in their turn, and everywhere the little bird meets with pleasure and with food. Its gorgeous throat in beauty and brilliancy baffles all competition. Now it glows with a fiery hue, and again it is changed to the deepest velvety black. The upper parts of its delicate body are of resplendent changing green; and it throws itself through the air with a swiftness and vivacity hardly conceivable. It moves from one flower to another like a gleam of light, upwards, downwards, to the right, and to the left. In this manner, it searches the extreme northern portions of our country, following with great precaution the advances of the season, and retreats with equal care at the approach of autumn. 

I wish it were in my power at this moment to impart to you, kind reader, the pleasures which I have felt whilst watching the movements, and viewing the manifestation of feelings displayed by a single pair of these most favourite little creatures, when engaged in the demonstration of their love to each other:--how the male swells his plumage and throat, and, dancing on the wing, whirls around the delicate female; how quickly he dives towards a flower, and returns with a loaded bill, which he offers to her to whom alone he feels desirous of being united; how full of ecstacy he seems to be when his caresses are kindly received; how his little wings fan her, as they fan the flowers, and he transfers to her bill the insect and the honey which he has procured with a view to please her; how these attentions are received with apparent satisfaction; how, soon after, the blissful compact is sealed; how, then, the courage and care of the male are redoubled; how he even dares to give chase to the Tyrant Fly-catcher, hurries the Blue-bird and the Martin to their boxes; and how, on sounding pinions, he joyously returns to the side of his lovely mate. Reader, all these proofs of the sincerity, fidelity, and courage, with which the male assures his mate of the care he will take of her while sitting on her nest, may be seen, and have been seen, but cannot be portrayed or described. 

Could you, kind reader, cast a momentary glance on the nest of the Humming-bird, and see, as I have seen, the newly-hatched pair of young, little larger than humble-bees, naked, blind, and so feeble as scarcely to be able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents; and could you see those parents, full of anxiety and fear, passing and repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body, waiting the result of your unwelcome visit in a state of the utmost despair, --you could not fail to be impressed with the deepest pangs which parental affection feels on the unexpected death of a cherished child. Then how pleasing is it, on your leaving the spot, to see the returning hope of the parents, when, after examining the nest, they find their nurslings untouched! You might then judge how pleasing it is to a mother of another kind, to hear the physician who has attended her sick child assure her that the crisis is over, and that her babe is saved. These are the scenes best fitted to enable us to partake of sorrow and joy, and to determine every one who views them to make it his study to contribute to the happiness of others, and to refrain from wantonly or maliciously giving them pain. 

I have seen Humming-birds in Louisiana as early as the 10th of March. Their appearance in that State varies, however, as much as in any other, it being sometimes a fortnight later, or, although rarely, a few days earlier. In the Middle Districts, they seldom arrive before the 15th of April, more usually the beginning of May. I have not been able to assure myself whether they migrate during the day or by night, but am inclined to think the latter the case, as they seem to be busily feeding at all times of the day, which would not be the case had they long flights to perform at that period. They pass through the air in long undulations, raising themselves for some distance at an angle of about 40 degrees, and then falling in a curve; but the smallness of their size precludes the possibility of following them farther than fifty or sixty yards without great difficulty, even with a good glass. A person standing in a garden by the side of a Common Althaea in bloom, will be as surprised to hear the humming of their wings, and then see the birds themselves within a few feet of him, as he will be astonished at the rapidity with which the little creatures rise into the air, and are out of sight and hearing the next moment. They do not alight on the ground, but easily settle on twigs and branches, where they move sidewise in prettily measured steps, frequently opening and closing their wings, pluming, shaking and arranging the whole of their apparel with neatness and activity. They are particularly fond of spreading one wing at a time, and passing each of the quill-feathers through their bill in its whole length, when, if the sun is shining, the wing thus plumed is rendered extremely transparent and light. They leave the twig without the least difficulty in an instant, and appear to be possessed of superior powers of vision, making directly towards a Martin or a Blue-bird when fifty or sixty yards from them, and reaching them before they are aware of their approach. No bird seems to resist their attacks, but they are sometimes chased by the larger kinds of humble-bees, of which they seldom take the least notice, as their superiority of flight is sufficient to enable them to leave these slow moving insects far behind in the short space of a minute. 

The nest of this Humming-bird is of the most delicate nature, the external parts being formed of a light grey lichen found on the branches of trees, or on decayed fence-rails, and so neatly arranged round the whole nest, as well as to some distance from the spot where it is attached, as to seem part of the branch or stem itself. These little pieces of lichen are glued together with the saliva of the bird. The next coating consists of cottony substance, and the innermost of silky fibres obtained from various plants, all extremely delicate and soft. On this comfortable bed, as in contradiction to the axiom that the smaller the species the greater the number of eggs, the female lays only two, which are pure white and almost oval. Ten days are required for their hatching, and the birds raise two broods in a season. In one week the young are ready to fly, but are fed by the parents for nearly another week. They receive their food directly from the bill of their parents, which disgorge it in the manner of Canaries or Pigeons. It is my belief that no sooner are the young able to provide for themselves than they associate with other broods, and perform their migration apart from the old birds, as I have observed twenty or thirty young Humming-birds resort to a group of trumpet-flowers, when not a single old male was to be seen. They do not receive the full brilliancy of their colours until the succeeding spring, although the throat of the male bird is strongly imbued with the ruby tints before they leave us in autumn. 

The Ruby-throated Humming-bird has a particular liking for such flowers as are greatly tubular in their form. The common jimpson-weed or thorn-apple (Datura stramonium) and the trumpet-flower (Bignonia radicans) are among the most favoured by their visits, and after these, honeysuckle, the balsam of the gardens, and the wild species which grows on the borders of ponds, rivulets, and (deep ravines; but every flower, down to the wild violet, affords them a certain portion of sustenance. Their food consists principally of insects, generally of the coleopterous order, these, together with some equally diminutive flies, being commonly found in their stomach. The first are procured within the flowers, but many of the latter on wing. The Humming-bird might therefore be looked upon as an expert fly-catcher. The nectar or honey which they sip from the different flowers, being of itself insufficient to support them, is used more as if to allay their thirst. I have seen many of these birds kept in partial confinement, when they were supplied with artificial flowers made for the purpose, in the corollas of which water with honey or sugar dissolved in it was placed. The birds were fed on these substances exclusively, but seldom lived many months, and on being examined after death, were found to be extremely emaciated. Others, on the contrary, which were supplied twice a-day with fresh flowers from the woods or garden, placed in a room with windows merely closed with moschetto gauze-netting, through which minute insects were able to enter, lived twelve months, at the expiration of which tune their liberty was granted them, the person who kept them having had a long voyage to perform. The room was kept artificially warm during the winter months, and these, in Lower Louisiana, are seldom so cold as to produce ice. On examining an orange-tree which had been placed in the room where these Humming-birds were kept, no appearance of a nest was to be seen, although the birds had frequently been observed caressing each other. Some have been occasionally kept confined in our Middle Districts, but I have not ascertained that any one survived a winter. 

The Humming-bird does not shun mankind so much as birds generally do. It frequently approaches flowers in the windows, or even in rooms when the windows are kept open, during the extreme heat of the day, and returns, when not interrupted, as long as the flowers are unfaded. They are extremely abundant in Louisiana during spring and summer, and wherever a fine plant of the trumpet-flower is met with in the woods, one or more Humming-birds are generally seen about it, and now and then so many as ten or twelve at a time. They are quarrelsome, and have frequent battles in the air, especially the male birds. Should one be feeding on a flower, and another approach it, they are both immediately seen to rise in the air, twittering and twirling in a spiral manner until out of sight. The conflict over, the victor immediately returns to the flower. 

If comparison might enable you, kind reader, to form some tolerably accurate idea of their peculiar mode of flight, and their appearance when on wing, I would say, that were both objects of the same colour, a large sphinx or moth, when moving from one flower to another, and in a direct line, comes nearer the Humming-bird in aspect than any other object with which I am acquainted. 

Having heard several persons remark that these little creatures had been procured, with less injury to their plumage, by shooting them with water, I was tempted to make the experiment, having been in the habit of killing them either with remarkably small shot, or with sand. However, finding that even when within a few paces, I seldom brought one to the ground when I used water instead of shot, and was moreover obliged to clean my gun after every discharge, I abandoned the scheme, and feel confident that it can never have been used with material advantage. I have frequently secured some by employing an insect-net, and were this machine used with dexterity, it would afford the best means of procuring Humming-birds. 

I have represented several of these pretty and most interesting birds, in various positions, feeding, caressing each other, or sitting on the slender stalks of the trumpet-flower and pluming themselves. The diversity of action and attitude thus exhibited, may, I trust, prove sufficient to present a faithful idea of their appearance and manners. A figure of the nest you will also find has been given; it is generally placed low, on the horizontal branch of any kind of tree, seldom more than twenty feet from the ground. They are far from being particular in this matter, as I have often found a nest attached by one side only to a twig of a rose-bush, currant, or the strong stalk of a rank weed, sometimes in the middle of the forest, at other times on the branch of an oak, immediately over the road, and again in the garden close to the walk. 

This interesting gem of the feathered tribe proceeds as far north in summer as the 57th parallel. Dr. RICHARDSON obtained it on the plains of the Saskatchewan, and Mr. DRUMMOND found its nest near the sources of the Elk river. It does not occur on the Columbia river, where the Nootka Humming-bird is abundant. A few were seen by me in Labrador, and, on the other hand, I met with it entering the United States in crowds in the beginning of April, advancing eastward along the shores of the Mexican Gulf. The weather having become very cold one morning, many were picked up dead along the beaches, and those which bore up were so benumbed as almost to suffer the members of my party to take them with the hand. My friend Dr. BACHMAN has heard this species uttering a few sweet notes, sometimes when perched on a twig, and at other times on wing. The eggs measure half an inch in length by 41 lines in breadth. 

HUMMING-BIRD, Trochilus Colubris, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ii. p. 26. 
TROCHILUS COLUBRIS, Bonap. Syn., p. 98. 
TROCHILUS COLUBRIS, NORTHERN HUMMING-BIRD, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 323. 
RUBY-THROATED HUMMING-BIRD, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 588. 
RUBY-THROATED HUMMING-BIRD, Trochilus colubris, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i.p. 248; vol. v. p. 544. 

Male, 3 1/4, 4 1/2. 

In summer, from Texas to lat. 57 degrees, and in all intermediate districts east of the Rocky Mountains. Common. Migratory. 

Adult Male. 

Bill long, straight, subulate, depressed at the base, acute; upper mandible rounded, its edges overlapping. Nostrils basal, linear. Tongue very extensile, filiform, divided towards the end into two filaments. Feet very short and feeble; tarsus slender, shorter than the middle toe, partly feathered; fore toes united at the base; claws curved, compressed, acute. 

Plumage compact, imbricated above and on the throat with metallic lustre, blended beneath. Wings long, narrow, a little incurved at the tip, the first quill longest. Tail forked when closed, when spread even in the middle and laterally rounded, of ten broad feathers, the outer curved inwards. 

Bill and feet black. Iris of the same colour. Upper parts generally, including the two middle tail-feathers, green, with gold reflections. Quills and tail purplish-brown. Throat, sides of the head, and fore neck, carmine-purple, spotted with black, varying to crimson, orange, and deep black. Sides of the same colour as the back; the rest of the under parts greyish-white, mixed with green. 

Length 3 1/2 inches, extent of wings 4 1/4; bill along the ridge 3/4, along the gap 5/6; tarsus 1/6, toe 1/4. 

Adult Female. 

The female differs from the male in wanting the brilliant patch on the throat, which is white, as are the under parts generally, and in having the three lateral tail-feathers tipped with the same colour. 

Dimensions the same. 

Young Bird. 

The young birds have the under parts brownish-white, the tail tipped with white, and are somewhat lighter in their upper parts. In autumn the young males begin to acquire the red feathers of the throat. 

On depriving a specimen of this bird of its feathers, one finds its proportions very different from what he may have previously imagined. Thus, the body is remarkably robust, of an ovate form, much deeper than broad, on account of the extreme size of the crest or keel of the sternum, which is so extended as to leave for the abdomen a space not more than a fifth of its own length. The feet, although very small, are yet proportionally as large as those of a Cormorant; the femur and tibia being relatively large, while the tarsus is extremely short, and the toes of moderate size, the anterior incapable of being widely spread, and the middle or third scarcely exceeding the two lateral; in which respect the foot has some resemblance to that of the Swifts. The hind toe is articulated remarkably high on the tarsus, it being placed very nearly at the height of one-third of its length. The bones of the wings are very short; the humerus and cubitus extremely so, although proportionally strong. The neck is very elongated, being 10 twelfths of an inch in length, whereas the body, including the coccyx, is only 9 twelfths. The head is rather large, depressed in front, with a deep hollow between the eyes, which are very large, and the bill is disproportionately elongated. The pectoral muscles are of extreme size, exceeding by much the entire bulk of the rest of the body with the neck and head, the height of the crest of the sternum being 4 twelfths, or nearly half the length of the body. The body of the sternum is remarkably flat, and so thin as to be almost perfectly transparent; it is narrow anteriorly, where it is 2 1/4 twelfths in breadth, but gradually enlarges to 4 twelfths; the posterior edge forms a semicircle, and is destitute of notch. The pubic bones almost meet in front, where they are cartilaginous. The heart is extraordinarily large, occupying half the length of the cavity of the body, of an elongated conical form, 3 1/4 twelfths long, and 2 twelfths in breadth at the base. The right lobe of the liver is much larger than the left, the former being 5 twelfths in length, the latter 4 twelfths. 

The whole length of the head is 1 1/4 inches, of which the bill is 10 twelfths. The upper mandible is slightly concave beneath in its whole length, the lower a little more deeply concave, the edges of both thin, those of the lower erect and overlapped by the upper. The nostrils are covered by a very large projecting membranous flap, feathered above. Thetongue is, to a certain extent, constructed precisely in the same manner as that of the Wood-peckers. The basi-hyal bone is 1 1/2 twelfths long, the apo-hyal bones 2 twelfths, the apo-hyal and cerato-hyal together 1 inch 2 twelfths, the glosso-hyal or terminal bones 4 1/2 twelfths. There is no uro-hyal bone, any more than in the Woodpeckers, and the glosso-hyal is double at the end. The horns of the hyoid bone are thus greatly elongated, recurving over the occiput, near the top of which they meet, and thence proceed directly forward, in mutual proximity, lodged in a deep and broad groove, along the middle of the forehead, until near the anterior part of the eye, where they terminate, fig. 3. The crura of the lower mandible, fig. 4, do not meet until very near the tip, and from the inner and lower surface of each near the junction or angle, there proceeds backward a slender muscle, which is attached to the hyoid bone at the junction of the apo-hyal and cerato-hyal, whence it proceeds all the way to the tip of the latter, the muscle and bone being enclosed in a very delicate sheath, which is attached to the subcutaneous cellular tissue between the nostrils. The tongue, properly so called, moves in a sheath, as in the Woodpeckers; its length is 10 twelfths. When it is protruded, the part beyond this at the base appears fleshy, being covered with the membrane of the mouth forming the sheath, but the rest of its extent is horny, and presents the appearance of two cylinders united, with a deep groove above and another beneath, for the length of 3 twelfths, beyond which they become flattened, concave above, thin-edged and lacerated externally, thick-edged internally, and, although lying parallel and in contact, capable of being separated. This part, being moistened by the fluid of the slender salivary glands, and capable of being alternately exserted and retracted, thus forms an instrument for the prehension of small insects, similar in so far to that of the Woodpeckers, although presenting a different modification in its horny extremity, which is more elongated and less rigid. All observers who have written on the tongue of the Humming-birds, have represented it as composed of two cylindrical tubes, and the prevalent notion has been that the bird sucks the nectar of flowers by means of these tubes. But both ideas are incorrect. There are, it is true, two cylindrical tubes, but they gradually taper away toward the point, and instead of being pervious form two sheaths for the two terminal parts or shafts of the glosso-hyal portion of the tongue, which run nearly to the tip, while there is appended to them externally a very thin-fringed or denticulate plate of horny substance. The bird obviously cannot suck, but it may thrust the tip of the tongue into a fluid, and by drawing it back may thus procure a portion. It is, however, more properly an organ for the prehension of small insects, for which it is obviously well adapted, and being exsertile to a great extent enables the bird to reach at minute objects deep in the tubes and nectaries of flowers. That a Humming-bird may for a time subsist on sugar and water, or any other saccharine fluid, is probable enough; but it is essentially an insect-hunter, and not a honey-sucker. 

The oesophagus, fig. 2, is 1 inch 4 twelfths long, 1 1/2 twelfths in width at the top, but toward the lower part of the neck enlarged to 1 3/4 twelfths. On entering the thorax, it contracts to 1/3 twelfths; and the proventriculus is 1 1/4 twelfths. The stomach is extremely small, of a roundish or broadly elliptical form, 1 1/4 twelfths in length, and 1 twelfth in breadth. The proventricular glands form a complete belt, 2 twelfths in breadth. The walls of the stomach are moderately muscular; the epithelium dense, with broad longitudinal rugae, four on one side, three on the other, and of a pale red colour. In the stomach were fragments of small coleopterous insects. The intestine is 2 inches 2 twelfths in length, from 1 1/4 twelfths to 1/2 twelfth in width. It forms six curves, the duodenum returning at the distance of 3 twelfths. There are no coeca. The cloaca is very large and globular. 

The trachea, fig. 1, is 9 twelfths long, being thus remarkably short on account of its bifurcating very high on the neck, for if it were to divide at the usual place, or just anteriorly to the base of the heart, it would be 4 1/2 twelfths longer. In this respect it differs from that of all the other birds examined, with the exception of the Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea Ajaja, the trachea of which is in so far similar. The bronchi are exactly 1/2 inch in length. Until the bifurcation, the trachea passes along the right side, afterwards directly in front. There are 50 rings to the fork; and each bronchus has 34 rings. The breadth of the trachea at the upper part is scarcely more than 1/2 twelfth, and at the lower part considerably less. It is much flattened, and the rings are very narrow, cartilaginous, and placed widely apart. The bronchial rings are similar, and differ from those of most birds in being complete. The two bronchi lie in contact for 2 twelfths at the upper part, being connected by a common membrane. The lateral muscles are extremely slender. The last ring of the trachea is four times the breadth of the rest, and has on each side a large but not very prominent mass of muscular fibres, inserted into the first bronchial ring. This mass does not seem to be divisible into four distinct muscles, but rather to resemble that of the Flycatchers, although nothing certain can be stated on this point. 


BIGNONIA RADICANS, Willd. Sp. Pl., vol. iii. p. 301. Pursh, Flor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 420. --DIDYNAMIA ANGIOSPERMIA, Linn.--BIGNONIAE, Juss. 

This splendid species of bignonia, which grows in woods and on the banks of rivers in all the Middle and Southern States, climbing on trees and bushes, is distinguished by its pinnate leaves, with ovate, widely serrate, acuminate leaflets, and large scarlet flowers, of which the funnel-shaped tube of the corolla is thrice the length of the calyx. The pods are of a brown colour, from four to seven inches long, and contain a double row of kidney-shaped light brown seeds.

For more on this species, see its entry in the Birds of North America Field Guide.