Page images
PDF
EPUB

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 humming-birds, is abundant in many parts of the Andes; and Mr. Bonelli tells us that the difficulty of shooting them is very great from the extraordinary turns and evolutions 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 attention. Of the little Wervain 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 each 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 rapidity, their wavering course, and their whole manner of flight are entirely those of an insect.” Mr. Bates remarks, that on the Amazons during the cooler hours of the morning and from four 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 unsteady manner, their wings moving with inconceivable rapidity, probe the flower, and then shoot off to another part of the tree. 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-bird 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 side 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 bathe 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-birds in the forests, and the great difficulty of seeing them ; and his conclusion is, that in the part of Nicaragua where he was living they equalled in number all the rest of the birds together, if they did not greatly exceed them.

| 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.

------

The extreme pugnacity of humming-birds has been noticed by all observers. Mr. Gosse describes two meeting and chasing each other through the labyrinths of twigs and flowers till, an opportunity occurring, the one would dart with seeming fury upon the other, and then, with a loud rustling of their wings, they would twirl together, round and round, till they nearly came to the earth. Then they parted, and after a time another tussle took place. Two of the same species can hardly meet without an encounter, while in many cases distinct species attack each other with equal fury. Mr. Salvin describes the splendid Eugenes fulgens attacking two other species with as much ferocity as its own fellows. One will knock another off its perch, and the two will go fighting and screaming away at a pace hardly to be followed by the eye. Audubon says they attack any other birds that approach them, and think nothing of assaulting tyrant-shrikes and even birds of prey that come too near their home.

Display of Ornaments by the Male.—It is a wellknown fact, that when male birds possess any unusual ornaments, they take such positions or perform such evolutions as to exhibit them to the best advantage while endeavouring to attract or charm the females or in rivalry with other males. It is therefore probable that the wonderfully varied decorations of humming-birds, whether burnished breast-shields, resplendent tail, crested head, or glittering back, are thus exhibited; but almost the only actual observation of this kind is that of Mr. Belt, who describes how two males of the Florisuga mellivora displayed their ornaments before a female bird. One would shoot up like a rocket, then, suddenly expanding the snow-white tail like an inverted parachute, slowly descend in front of her, turning round gradually to show off both back and front. The expanded white tail covered more space than all the rest of the bird, and was evidently the grand feature of the performance. Whilst one was descending the other would shoot up and come slowly down expanded." Food—The food of humming-birds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers; but since that time every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks:—“All the hum* The Naturalist in Nicaragua, p. 112.

ming-birds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me. I observed it carefully, and distinctly saw the minute flies in the air which it pursued and caught, and heard repeatedly the snapping of the beak. My presence scarcely disturbed it, if at all.” There is also an extensive group of small brown humming-birds, forming the sub-family Phaëthornithinae, which rarely or never visit flowers, but frequent the shady recesses of the forest, where they hunt for minute insects. They dart about among the foliage, and visit in rapid succession every leaf upon a branch, balancing themselves vertically in the air, passing their beaks closely over the under-surface of each leaf, and thus capturing, no doubt, any small insects that may lurk there. While doing this, the two long feathers of the tail have a vibrating motion, serving apparently as a rudder, to assist them in performing the delicate operation. Others search up and down stems and dead sticks in the same manner, every now and then picking off something, exactly as a bush-shrike or a tree-creeper does, with the difference that the humming-bird is constantly on the wing; while the remarkable Sickle-bill is said to probe the scale-covered stems of palms and treeferns to obtain its insect food. It is a well-known fact that although humming-birds are easily tamed, they cannot be preserved long in

« EelmineJätka »