Flying Jewels

by Pam L. Hendrickson

Video available on this subject.Click here to view a video on Hummingbirds

John James Audubon called hummingbirds "glittering fragments of rainbows." Others have likened them to "flying jewels." The poet D. H. Lawrence once observed, " [a hummingbird] is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description." Metaphors aside, "hummers" are indeed, infinitely delightful.


Throughout the spring and summer months, they arrive by the thousands, exiting the super highway of bird migration, the Continental Divide, and descend on the lush flower laden Sapillo Valley, located in the heart of New Mexico’s Gila Forest.

A few of the species include the brilliant blue-throated; the feisty, bright orange Rufous; the blue-green, sequined broad-billed hummers; the elegant, emerald-throated magnificents, which are the largest to breed in North America; and the tiny, purple-red-on-white calliopes.

Various sources have reported at least eleven different varieties in the Sapillo Valley. There are thirteen kinds in New Mexico, more than in all but three other states in the entire country.

Blue-throated HummerHummingbirds are only found in the western hemisphere, so they do no appear in any culture’s legends and myths except those of North and South America. On the Pacific coast of Peru perhaps two thousand years ago, for example, a mysterious people carved into the desert surface what archaeologists call a "giant ground drawing" of a hummingbird. It (like many other giant ground drawings in the region) is so large that you cannot even see it in its entirety unless you are at least one thousand feet above the figure. If this seems like an extreme preoccupation with hummers, perhaps the sculptors can be better understood by considering where they lived.

These iridescent "flower birds," or, "flower kissers," as the Brazilians call them, were considered gifts from the gods by the Native Americans. In Peru and other South American countries, at or near the equator, naturalists have catalogued over three hundred species, and it is believed that not all have been discovered yet.

Possibly, in primordial times, the rain forests of South America were where hummingbirds evolved and where they discovered the sweetness of flowers. Like the butterfly, maybe the hummingbird drank the life-giving nectar, leaving behind a pollinated forest before flying away, its burnished colors shimmering in a primal world of sunlight.

Do hummingbirds bring love? In the folklore of Mexico, there are stories of love and romance associated with them. Long ago, stuffed hummers were worn as lucky charms to bring success in matters of the heart. Even today, dead hummingbirds are sold as amulets. A persistent practice involves drying the heart of a hummingbird, then grinding it into a powder which is used in love potions. Fortunately, most people in the world simply prefer to observe hummingbirds.

Mapmakers who came to the Sapillo Valley in the 1800s were apparently affected by the abundance of these lilliputian avians. Why else would they have named one place Hummingbird Saddle and another, Hummingbird Springs?


Long before cartographers surveyed the area, the prehistoric Mimbres people who lived here immortalized the charm of hummingbirds on their beautiful black-on-white pottery. Even the fierce, nomadic Apaches were not immune to their unique appeal.

One Apache legend tells of Wind Dancer, a young deaf warrior who could sing bewitching, wordless songs that brought healing and good weather. He loved a young woman named Bright Rain. He died tragically and a bitter winter ensued, but it ended suddenly and mysteriously after Bright Rain began taking solitary walks. Wind Dancer had come back to her in the form of a hummingbird. He wore the same bright ceremonial costume he had worn as a man, and in fields of flowers, he would approach her and whisper his enchanting secrets in her ear. This brought her peace and joy.

Who knows? Maybe the Apache tale of an enchanted hummingbird originated in the Sapillo Valley. Rich in flowers and insects, it is a near perfect environment for these mini-travelers. (Hummers are the smallest of migrating birds. They may travel many hundreds of miles each year.)

Many residents provide feeders just for the pleasure of watching them. And, as we watch hummingbirds, they like to study us. Not in the least shy about close encounters with humans, they sometimes satisfy their curiosity, and at the same time, fondness for salt, by poking their soft tongues into facial crevices, such as our ears, mouth and pink corners of our eyes.



These amusing, captivating and miraculous feathered creatures can also be pugnacious, perverse and mysterious. With a constant buzzing and whirring sound, hummers almost seem immune to gravity and other physical laws. They fly upside down, forward and backwards. They perform free-falls and barrel-rolls with precision and dizzying speed. When they pause unexpectedly, suspended in midair, we cannot help but wonder if there are invisible strings holding them aloft.

Late summer is a magical time for watching nature's feathered whirlybirds. It is the peak of the season. They visit feeders in swarms. They are preparing for long journeys to warmer climes. Following the dictates of an infallible internal clock, they become consumed by the need for food. Adding weight for the journey becomes a matter of survival. It is a formidable task. If a one hundred and seventy pound man burned energy at the same rate as the hummingbird burns energy, he would have to consume one hundred and fifty five thousand calories (compared with the typical three thousand five hundred calories) a day to gain weight.

As they do their day-long aerial dance, darting between feeder and flower, their glittering wings beating so fast they are but a blur, it is easy to understand why nothing in nature captures the eye like these multicolored creatures. When they hover, ever so briefly in the sunlight, hummingbirds do indeed, bring to the imagination images of rainbows, jewels and the realm of fairies.


Video available on this subject.Click here to view a movie of Hummingbirds

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