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The bill differs greatly in length and shape, being either straight or gently curved, in some species bent like a sickle, in others turned up like the bill of the avoset. It is usually long and slender, but in one group is so enormously developed that it is nearly the same length as the rest of the bird. The legs, usually little seen, are in some groups adorned with globular tufts of white, brown, or black down, a peculiarity possessed by no other birds. The reacler will now be in a position to understand how the four hundred species of hummingbiruls may be casily distinguished, by the varied combinations of the characters here briefly enumerated, together with many others of less importance. One group
of birils will have a short round tail, with crest and long neck-frill; another group a deeply-forked broad til, combined with glowing crown and gorget; one is both bearded and crested; others have a luminous back and pendent neck-plumes; and in each of these groups the species will vary in combinations of colour, in size, and in the proportions of the ornamental plumes, so as to proluce an unmistakable distinctness; while, without any new developments of form or structure, there is room for the discovery of hundreds more of distinct kinds of humming-birds.
Descriptive Names.—The name we usually give to the birds of this family is derived from the sound of their rapidly-moving wings, a sound which is produced by the largest as well as by the smallest member of the group. The Creoles of Guiana similarly call them Bourdons or hummers. The French term, Oiseau-mouche, refers to their small size ; while Colibri is a native name which has come down from the Carib inhabitants of t!ie West
Indies. The Spaniards and Portuguese call them by more poctical names, such as Flower-peckers, Flowerkissers, Myrtle-suckers-while the Mexican and Peruvian names show a still higher appreciation of their beauties, their meaning being rays of the sun, tresses of the daystar, and other such appellations. Even our modern naturalists, while studying tlie structure and noting the peculiarities of these living gems, have been so struck by their inimitable beauties that they have endeavoured to invent appropriate English names for the more beautiful and remarkable genera. IIence we find in common use such terms as Sun-gems, Sun-stars, IIill-stars, Wood-stars, Sun-angels, Star-throats, Comets, Coquettes, Flamebearers, Sylphis, and Fairies; together with many others derived from the character of the tail or the crests.
The Motions and IIubits of IIumming-birds.---Let us now consider briefly, the peculiarities of flight, the musions, the food, the nests, and general habits of the hummingbirds, quoting the descriptions of those modern naturalists who have personally observed them. Their appearance, remarks Professor Alfred Newton, is entirely unlike that of any other bird :-“One is admiring some brilliant and beautiful Aower, when between the blossom and one's eye suddenly appears a small dark olijert, suspended as it were between four short black threads meeting each other in a cross. For an instant it shows in front of the flower; again another instant, and emitting a momentary flash of <merald and sapphire light, it is vanishing, lessoning in the distance, as it shoots away, to a speck that the eye cannot take note of.” Audubon observes that the Ruby Humming-birds pass through the air in long undulations, but the smallness of their size precludes
the possibility of following them with the eye further than fifty or sixty yards, without great difficulty. A person standing in a garden by the side of a common althæa in bloom, will hear the humming of their wings and see the little birds themselves within a few feet of him one moment, while the next they will be out of sight and hearing Mr. Gould, who visited North America in order to see living humming-birds while preparing his great work on the family, remarks, that the action of the wings reminded him of a piece of machinery acted
upon by a powerful spring. When poised before a flower, the motion is so rapid that a hazy semicircle of indistinctness on each side of the bird is all that is preoptible. Although many short intermissions of rest are taken, the bird may be said to live in the air-an clement in which it performs every kind of evolution with the utmost case, frequently rising perpendicularly, flying backward, pirouetting or dancing off, as it were, from place to place, or from one part of a tree to another, sometimes descending, at others ascending. It often mounts up above the towering trees, and then shoots off like a little meteor at a right angle. At other times it gently buzzes away among the little flowers near the ground; at one moment it is poised over diminutive weed, at the next it is seen at a distance of forty yards, whither it has vanished with the quickness of thought.
The Rufous Flame-bearer, an exquisite species found on the west coast of North America, is thus described ly Mr. Nuttall :-“When engaged in collecting its accustomed sweets, in all the energy of life, it seemed like a breathing gem, a magic carbuncle of flaming fire,
stretching out its glorious ruff as if to emulate the sun itself in splendour.” The Sappho Comet, whose long forked tail barred with crimson and black renders it one of the most imposing of humminy-birds, is abundant in
many parts of the Andes; and Jr. Bonelli tells us that the difficulty of shooting them is very great from the extraordinary turns and cvolutions they make when on the wing; at one instant darting headlong into a flower, at the next describing a circle in the air with such rapidity that the eye, unable to follow the movement, loses sight of the bird until it again returns to the flower which at first attracted its atteution. Of the little Vervain humming-bird of Jamaica, Mr. Gosse writes :-_“I have sometimes watched with much delight the evolutions of this little species at the Moringatree. When only one is present, he pursues the round of the blossoms soberly enough. But if two are at the tree, one will fly off, and suspend himself in the air a few yards distant; the other presently starts off to him, and then, without touching cach other, they mount upwards with strong rushing wings, perhaps for five hundred feet. They then separate, and each starts diagonally towards the ground like a ball from a rifle, and wheeling round comes up to the blossoms again as if it had not moved away at all. The figure of the smaller hummingbirds on the wing, their rüpility, their wavering course, and their whole manner of fight are entirely those of an insect.” Mr. Bates remarks, that on the Amazons during the cooler hours of the morning and from four
I Sometimes called the horse-radish tree. It is the Moringa pterygosperma, a native of the East Indies, but commonly cultivated in Jamaica. It has yellow flowers.
to six in the afternoon humming-birds are to be seen whirring about the trees by scores ; their motions being unlike those of any other birds. They dart to and fro so swiftly that the eye can scarcely follow them, and when they stop before a flower it is only for a few moments. They poise themselves in an unstearly manner, their wings moving with inconceivable rapidity, probe the flower, and then shoot off to another part of the trec. They do not proceed in that methodical manner which bees follow, taking the flowers seriatim, but skip about from one part of the tree to another in the most capricious way.
Mr. Belt remarks on the excessive rapidity of the flight of the humming-birid giving it a sense of security from danger, so that it will approach a person nearer than any other bird, often hovering within two or three yards (or even one or two feet) of one's face. He watched them bathing in a small pool in the forest, hovering over the water, turning from side to siile by quick jerks of the tail ; now showing a throat of gleaming emerald, now shoulders of glistening amethyst ; then darting beneath the water, and rising instantly, throw off a shower of spray from their quivering wings, and again fly up to an overhanging bough and commence to preen their feathers. All humming-birds batle on the wing, and generally take three or four dips, hovering between times about three or four inches above the surface. Mr. Belt also remarks on the immense numbers of humming-birols in the forests, and the great difficulty of secing them; and his conclusion is, that in the part of Nicaragua where he was living they cqualled in number all the rest of the birds together, if they did not greatly exceed them.