Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Hummingbirds

As recent transplants from the Southeast, we've been mostly bereft of hummingbirds for the duration of our lives as birders. Our one consolation was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a gorgeous member of the "bee" group whose fiery gorgets gleam a radiant red in the sunlight when viewed head on. If you're limited to only one hummingbird species it's not a bad one to have, but hummingbirds are so varied, so specialized, and so brilliant that they practically compel us to seek them out. Even having added three new species to our life lists since heading west last Spring, it still feels like we're only just getting started.

Fortunately, for those of us who need more hummingbird in our lives, Firefly Books recently published a well-researched treatment of the family, chockablock with incredible photos. The aptly named Hummingbirds explores everything from their evolution and their uniqueness, to the impressive amount of diversity they exhibit in appearance and in their ways of making a living. The book's text was written by zoologist Ronald Orenstein, and includes chapters titled "How Hummingbirds Fly," "How Hummingbirds Refuel," and "How Hummingbirds Glow." These short, readable entries explore those aspects of hummingbird biology that set them apart from the rest of the bird world.

The rest of the book (and most of the book's bulk) is a portfolio of hummingbird photographs contributed by Michael and Patricia Fogden. This collection features some really spectacular shots of gorgeous birds. The more bizarre-looking speciesm like the Booted Racket-tail and the Wire-crested Thorntail, are some of my favorites, but overall we see a decent sample of the variation exhibited among hummingbirds. While a few photographs are mixed in with Orenstein's text, the portfolio is essentially a second book within the same volume, although many of the pictures do have informative captions reinforcing points Orenstein had made earlier.

One of the themes reinforced throughout the book is the interrelationship between hummingbirds and their environments. Everything from territory size, to foraging strategy, to bill size and shape is influenced by the abundance and nutritional profile of the flowering plants each species co-evolved with. Additionally, hummingbird brains have had to evolve a specialized set of information processing mechanisms that allow it to "calculate how long it will take for an empty flower to restore its nectar supply, and to time their visits accordingly" (p. 33). Orenstein does a great job of driving this theme home throughout his text, which really helps explain the *why* of hummingbirds: not just that they're unique, but that their uniqueness is in response to the particular adaptive problems they have had to solve. 

Along the way readers are treated to illustrative examples of how some species make their living. Not surprisingly the section on courtship displays details some of the more unusual behaviors, like how the male Sombre Hummingbird clenches his prospective mate's vent feathers in his bill, and then sways back and forth, hanging on all the while. Equally amusing is a brief section on how hummingbirds feature in Native American mythology, and early European attempts to describe them scientifically.

While Orenstein successfully stoked my interest in hummingbirds, I wish that some of the sections were longer. The text is broken into seven chapters, with the shortest at only two or three pages. The author obviously knows his subject extremely well, and I definitely got the sense that he could have developed each topic more fully without sacrificing the book's readability. 

With regard to the Fogdens' portfolio, the photographs seems to be organized for maximum aesthetic appeal. This isn't a criticism, obviously, but it may not appeal to everyone's tastes. Species aren't grouped taxonomically, nor do photographs of the same species necessarily appear near each other, as you would expect them to be if the organization were driven by scientific considerations. More importantly, while the photographs are beautiful, the species represented in the book are only a small fraction of the world's existing species. The vast majority of species are omitted from the portfolio, while some, such as White-necked Jacobin and Violet Sabrewing, appear again and again.The photographers live in Costa Rica, and so the birds from this region are likely overrepresented -- unfortunately, this is never made explicit, as the location of the photographs is not provided.

If you're looking for a primer on hummingbirds, or a collection of (200+) beautiful hummingbird photographs, Hummingbirds should be definitely be near the top of your list. Anybody fascinated by this family is sure to find that fascination grow after exploring these pages. It makes for a great introduction to the versatility and uniqueness of these tiny, charismatic birds, and is sure to stir a strong sense of wanderlust for those more adventurous readers who will want to chase down as many of these species as they can.

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