Page images

colour are its most prominent features; and these are manifested in the highest degree in those equatorial lands where the vegetation acquires its greatest beauty and its fullest development. The causes of these essentially tropical features are not to be found in the comparatively simple influence of solar light and heat, but rather in the uniformity and permanence with which these and all other terrestrial conditions have acted ; neither varying prejudicially throughout the year, nor having undergone any important change for countless past ages. While successive glacial periods have devastated the temperate zones, and destroyed most of the larger and more specialized forms which during more favourable epochs had been developed, the equatorial lands must always have remained thronged with life; and have been unintermittingly subject to those complex influences of organism upon organism, which seem the main agents in developing the greatest variety of forms and filling up every vacant place in nature. A constant struggle against the vicissitudes and recurring severities of climate must always have restricted the range of effective animal variation in the temperate and frigid zones, and have checked all such developments of form and colour as were in the least degree injurious in themselves, or which co-existed with any constitutional incapacity to resist great changes of temperature or other unfavourable conditions. Such disadvantages were not experienced in the equatorial zone. The struggle for existence as against the forces of nature was there always less severe,-food was there more abundant and more regularly supplied, --shelter and concealment were at all times more easily obtained ; and almost the only physical

changes experienced, being dependent on cosmical or geological changes, were so slow, that variation and natural selection were always able to keep the teeming mass of organisms in nicely balanced harmony with the changing physical conditions. The equatorial zone, in short, exhibits to us the result of a comparatively continuous and unchecked development of organic forms; while in the temperate regions, there have been a series of periodical checks and extinctions of a more or less disastrous nature, necessitating the commencement of the work of development in certain lines over and over again. In the one, evolution has had a fair chance ; in the other it has had countless difficulties thrown in its way. The equatorial regions are then, as regards their past and present life history, a more ancient world than that represented by the temperate zones, a world in which the laws which have governed the progressive development of life have operated with comparatively little check for countless ages, and have resulted in those infinitely varied and beautiful forms—those wonderful eccentricities of structure, of function, and of instinctthat rich variety of colour, and that nicely balanced harmony of relations—which delight and astonish us in the animal productions of all tropical countries.





Structure-Colours and Ornaments-Display of Ornaments by the Male

Descriptive Names-- The Motions and Habits of Humming-birds--Food -Nests—Geographical Distribution and Variation-Humming-birds of Juan Fernandez as illustrating Variation and Natural Selection—The relations and affinities of Humming-birds-How to determine doubtful affinities - Resemblances of Swifts and Humming-birds-Differences between Sun-birds and Humming-birds-Conclusion.

THERE are now about ten thousand different kinds of birds known to naturalists, and these are classed in one hundred and thirty families which vary greatly in extent, some containing a single species only, while others comprise many hundreds. The two largest families are those of the warblers, with more than six hundred, and the finches with more than five hundred species, spread over the whole globe ; the hawks and the pigeons, also spread over the whole globe, number about three hundred and thirty, and three hundred and sixty species respectively; while the diminutive humming-birds, confined to one hemisphere, consist of about four hundred different species. They are thus, as regards the number of distinct kinds collected in a limited area,

the most remarkable of all the families of birds. It may, however, very reasonably be asked, whether the four hundred species of humming-birds above alluded to are really all distinct—as distinct on the average as the ten thousand species of birds are from each other. We reply that they certainly are perfectly distinct species which never intermingle ; and their differences do not consist in colour only, but in peculiarities of form, of structure, and of habits; so that they have to be classed in more than a hundred distinct genera or systematic groups of species, these genera being really as unlike each other as stonechats and nightingales, or as partridges and blackcocks. The figures we have quoted, as showing the proportion of birds in general to humming-birds, thus represent real facts; and they teach us that these small and in some respects insignificant birds, constitute an important item in the animal life of

the globe.

Humming-birds are, in many respects, unusually interesting and instructive. They are highly peculiar in form, in structure, and in habits, and are quite unrivalled as regards variety and beauty. Though the name is familiar to every one, few but naturalists are acquainted with the many curious facts in their history, or know how much material they afford for admiration and study. It is proposed, therefore, to give a brief and popular account of the form, structure, habits, distribution, and affinities, of this remarkable family of birds, as illustrative of the teeming luxuriance of tropical nature, and as throwing light on some of the most interesting problems of natural history.

Structure.—The humming-birds form one compact

family named Trochilidæ. They are all small birds, the largest known being about the size of a swallow, while the smallest are minute creatures whose bodies are hardly larger than a humble-bee. Their distinguishing features are excessively short legs and feet, very long and pointed wings, a long and slender bill, and a long extensible tubular tongue ; and these characters are found combined in no other birds. The feet are exceedingly small and delicate, often beautifully tufted with down, and so short as to be hardly visible beyond the plumage. The toes are placed as in most birds, three in front and one behind, and have very strong and sharply curved claws; and the feet serve probably to cling to a perch rather than to give any movement to the body. The wings are long and narrow, but strongly formed ; and the first quill is the longest, a peculiarity found in hardly any other birds but a few of the swifts. The bill varies greatly in length, but is always long, slender, and pointed, the upper mandible being the widest and lapping over the lower at each side, thus affording complete protection to the delicate tongue the perfect action of which is essential to the bird's existence. The humming-bird's tongue is very long, and is capable of being greatly extended beyond the beak and rapidly drawn back, by means of muscles which are attached to the hyoid or tongue-bones, and bend round over the back and top of the head to the very forehead, just as in the woodpeckers. The two blades or laminæ, of which the tongues of birds usually seem to be formed, are here greatly lengthened, broadened out, and each rolled up; so as to form a complete double tube connected down the middle, and with the outer edges in contact but not

« EelmineJätka »