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Hummingbirds: Beauty in Our Midst
Sometimes we can become so pre-occupied with the distractions of life that we fail to recognise the beauty in our midst. In previous columns I have focused on the beauty that lies within all human beings and the need for us to take time to reflect on our lives and embrace and live out our inner goodness as moral beings. In this my first article for 2011, I wish to temporarily digress and focus on the beauty and mystery of nature; specifically, hummingbirds. T&T boasts of being the Land of the Hummingbird. Bird watchers from around the world trek to T&T to lay eyes on these amazing creatures. But how much do we, ourselves, know about hummingbirds even when we conscientiously project them as a national sym-bol? Two hummingbirds float prominently above the three ships of Columbus on our national crest. Every year we award the Humming Bird Medal in gold, silver and bronze to a few select citizens for loyal and devoted service beneficial to the State in any field, or acts of gallantry.
The hummingbird is the common insignia of our protective services—army, coast guard, air guard and police. It is the watermark on our $20 note and appears on our one-cent coin. It is the emblem of our national airline and our postal service. It features regularly in our carnival and few will forget the dramatic impact of 13-year-old Sherry-Ann Guy when she crossed the Queen’s Park Savannah stage in 1974 in the glittering hummingbird costume, “Like a Joyful Sapphire,” designed by the then 21-year-old Peter Minshall. But despite being a powerful national symbol, we seem to know very little about these magical little creatures. I am always amazed by the number of people who believe that there is just one type of hummingbird, when there are 17 species that can be found in T&T—some very common and some very rare. Of these, 16 species are found in Trinidad and seven in Tobago, including the only near threatened species, the White-tail Sabrewing. According to some historians, Trinidad was inferred as the Land of the Hummingbird by its original inhabitants, the Amerindians, who named Trinidad Iere after the Ierette or Yerette, Amerindian names for the hummingbird. Later, the name Colibri was widely used in Trinidad and other American territories by both the indigenous Amerindians and colonising Europeans to refer to the hummingbird.
The name survives in T&T to the present as “Kwilibi’ and is commonly used by our older and more rural residents. In Europe, Trinidad also became known as the Land of the Hummingbird for a completely different reason. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, hummingbirds were captured in large numbers (millions) in the Americas and exported to Europe for use as “jewelry” in the hat-making and fashion industries. They were made into pins, brooches and other accessories. Many of the skins were shipped from T&T and hence T&T became known to Europeans as the Land of the Hummingbird.
Hummingbirds are limited to the Americas. To the Amerindians, the hummingbird is sacred, consequent to their belief that hummingbirds represent the souls of their dead ancestors. Hence, the hummingbird features prominently in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Early visiting Europeans were enthralled and fascinated by hummingbirds. They are among the tinniest birds in the world, with the smallest being the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba, which weighs only 1.8 g. Trinidad can boast of having the second smallest hummingbird in the world, the Tufted Coquette, weighing 2.3 g.
It is also one of the most stunningly beautiful of nature’s creatures, blending most of the colours of the rainbow. Some people often remark that it looks like a miniscule version of a King of Carnival in full regalia, including a magnificent headpiece.
In general, hummingbirds are among the most intensely colourful of life forms on the planet. They are naturally iridescent and in brilliant sunshine the metallic colours appear jewel-like. They are often referred to as “fragments of the rainbow,” “rays of the sun,” “flying jewels,, “jewels on air,” “living prismatic gems,” “chromatic fantasy.” Hence, hummingbirds are often named after gem- stones, precious metals, or the sun. Among the local species we have the White-chested Emerald, the Copper-rumped Hummingbird, the Blue-chinned Sapphire, the Blue-tailed Emerald, the Long-billed Starthroat, the Ruby Topaz, the Rufous-shafted Woodstar and the Brown Violetear. Further, there is beauty in the acrobatic behaviour and aerial display of the hummingbird. Hummingbirds are among the most acrobatic and energetic of nature’s creatures—hence they are sometimes described as “magic in the air.” They have a souped-up metabolism that allows them to live at the biological extreme. They have the highest metabolic rate among vertebrates and a greater concentration of red blood cells than any other animal in the animal kingdom. Hummingbird blood shows high uploading efficiency for oxygen. They have the largest heart in relation to body mass in the animal kingdom. The heart beats up to 1,260 times a minute in flight. They eat 1.5 times or more of their body weight every day. On average a hummingbird consumes the human equivalent of 62 kg (140 lbs) of sugar every day. They can convert food energy from nectar to flight energy in 15-20 minutes.
It is not surprising, then, that they are considered to be the most powerful vertebrate per unit of mass. They are the most combative and confrontational players in nature. They seem fearless. They are the fastest birds in relation to body size, achieving flight speeds of over 128 km/hr (80 miles/hr). Hummingbird wings beat at up to 200 times a second and they have superb hovering ability. They fly in any direction including backward and upside down. No other bird comes close for aerial manoeuvrability. Hummingbirds have great memory—they have the largest brain in relation to body size among birds. Hummingbirds are extremely clean animals. They love to preen their feathers and engage in rain-bathing and sun-bathing. Observing hummingbirds close-up is always a heart-warming experience. I stand in rapt awe of the power, energy, beauty and cleanliness of these tiny and mysterious creatures. I am reminded of the words of Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Hummingbirds have helped to open my mind and my heart to the wonderful creations that are in our midst. We should pause from time to time to marvel at these glittering and acrobatic gems and to share in the energy of the universe. It is a liberating experience that frees us to discover the truth about ourselves.
Dr Theodore Ferguson is the devel-oper of the Leading From Above The Line programme. The next free one-day intro-spective retreat is on Sunday at the Asa Wright Nature Centre. For further infor-mation, visit: www.theoferguson.com or call Hyacinth at 662-5967 or e-mail to [email protected]
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