How to name a hummingbird

Kim Johnson looks at the tiniest birds through the eyes of history


From the first, Europeans thought them quite startling. “Little birds,” remarked Columbus in 1492, when he first arrived in the New World, “so different from ours, it is a marvel.”

Since wrens were the smallest birds known to Europeans at the time, Peter Martyr in De Orbe Novo explained that these were “smaller than wrens.” And indeed, so tiny were some species — “the smallest birds in the world” — that Fernandez de Oviedo, who wrote his detailed New World descriptions in the early 16th century, referred to them as pajaro-mosca or “bird-fly”, or the diminutive pajaro-mosquito, “little bird-fly”.

Back in Europe, people took this literally. They pictured a half-bird, half-fly which hatched as an insect and metamorphosed into a bird.

The English name came in 1630, when Captain John Smith returned home from Virginia speaking of “the humbird, one of the wonders of the Countrey, being no bigger than a Hornet, yet hath all the dimensions of a Bird, as bill and wings with quills, Spider-like legges, small clawes.” (Smith is better known for his romance with the Native American princess Pocahontas than for his observations on nature.)

Two decades later, in John Josselyn’s New England Rarities, the Amerindian names were recorded: “Colibry or viemalin, the Rising and Waking Bird, an Emblem of the Resurrection.” Colibri, “little magic one” or “spirit-bird”, was the name given by the indigenous people of what is now Haiti. A Swedish classifier named Linnaue misspelled the word to get Colubris, actually Latin for “snake”. He also named one genus Trochilus, which was the ancient Greek name for “plover”, a bird small enough for crocodiles to ignore while it picked their teeth. Trochilus is still the name for what Jamaicans call the Doctor Bird.

The resurrection name came from Mexico; “vitzitzili” (vee-tsee-tsee-lee) is what Franciscan priest Bernadino de Sahugun heard when the Aztecs were calling hummingbirds in their Nahuatl language; he translated this to pajaro resucitado, “the reviving ones”. The birds were reputed to die when food and warmth were scarce, and revive, sometimes months later, when things improved.

The idea was ridiculed by naturalists, until the 19th century, when it was scientifically observed that, in cold regions, the birds really did have the ability to slow their metabolism almost to a dead stop. This is just as well, since a hummingbird, because of the proportionately vast amount of energy it burns, can starve to death after a few hours’ activity.

There have been other names, too. De Oviedo compared his “bird-flies” to a “tomin or two”, a tomin being a Spanish feather-light weight. When the Spanish Jesuit naturalist José de Acosta recounted his 16th century travels in Mexico and Peru, he described the birds as los tominejos.

The Mediterranean peoples coined more picturesque names: picaflores, chupaflores, chuparrosas, chupamirtas, pickers or sippers of flowers, roses or myrtle. The Brazilians, even more romantic, preferred “kissers of flowers”. The English, inevitably, settled upon a more grammatically correct version of John Smith’s “humbird”.

Hummingbirds are indigenous to the New World, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, and have inspired much excitement throughout the western world. What, therefore, accounts for the small island of Trinidad — which boasts only 13 of the 300 species — being called the Land of the Hummingbird?

There are several connections. The birds were central to Amerindian mythology, and the Warao Indians of South America believed they first obtained their sacred tobacco when it was carried to the mainland from Trinidad by a hummingbird. But linguist Kemlin Lawrence pointed out years ago that “Cairi”, the aboriginal name for Trinidad, didn’t mean “land of the humming bird”, as is popularly believed. The word simply meant “island”, and wasn’t even a place name. Calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow, noting the greater prevalence of “cobos” (turkey vultures) in Trinidad, sang in the 1960s, “A Bajan fella say this is absurd/I thought this was the land of the hummingbird.”

In 1838, historian E. L. Joseph told another story about another tribe of Indians, the Chaima, after whom Carapichaima in Central Trinidad is named. The people had killed many hummingbirds at La Brea, not knowing the birds were their own resurrected ancestors. The Good Spirit, angered by this deed, had the earth swallow the village, and thus was created Trinidad’s famous Pitch Lake.

A half-century after, a Dominican priest, Fr Bertrand Cothonay, heard that the Pitch Lake was the point of exit of souls from the nether world. While virtuous Amerindians returned to visit their descendants as hummingbirds, sinners emerged from the lake as cobos. Alas, Fr Cothonay, himself in the business of souls, noted (a century before Sparrow) that the district had many more cobos than hummingbirds.

Trinidad’s reputation for being the land of the hummingbird, was rooted, I am told, in a European mistake. In the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of the creatures, all squashed flat like cockroaches, were shipped from Brazil to Europe where their feathers were used to adorn the hats of fashionable women. The transshipment port, where those cargoes of avifaunal corpses were boxed and stamped for the Atlantic haul, was the colony of Trinidad.