Searching for hummingbirds has led Jon Dunn across the Americas – but his journeys make him question the ethics of flying, he tells Etan Smallman
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Frida Kahlo painted herself with the tiny corpse of one hung around her neck. Ian Fleming opened the Bond story For Your Eyes Only with a fieldguide-worthy account of the tiny creature in Jamaica. They captivated Charles Dickens (who called them “stars of the morning”) and Queen Victoria (“It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely… their variety, and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours”).
But after centuries of being mythologised, in everything from an ancient 100m-long drawing etched into the soil of the Nazca Desert in Peru to modern-day street art seen across South America, the hummingbird has perhaps only just found its most effusive advocate.
So entranced by the creatures was British naturalist Jon Dunn that he devoted himself to a voyage across their global range, taking him from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.
His new book detailing the avian odyssey, The Glitter in the Green, contains almost 300 pages of intricate, adoring and poetic descriptions as sumptuous as the birds’ kaleidoscopic wings.
Even the very first ones he saw – 200-year-old lifeless specimens in the Natural History Museum when he was eight – were, to Dunn, gems “dipped in rainbows, with plumage that sparkled and shone”.
He had to wait until his midthirties before he saw his first live species, the Rivoli’s hummingbird in Arizona, whose “sooty black underparts provided the perfect counterpoint to a glittering, emerald-green throat, an amethyst-purple crown, and a tail of burnished bronze”. Meanwhile the male fierythroated hummingbird is, he says, “like a shard of the sky captured in feathers”.
The adventure had him confronting hordes of mosquitoes in Cuba and “the shock of almost treading on a puma” on the border of Mexico.
In Bolivia, Dunn was faced with barricades of burning tyres as protesters gathered in response to the disputed re-election of then president Evo Morales. After he foolishly took out his phone to film the scenes as the group’s Fiat Uno slalomed around shattered lumps of concrete in the road, the car was stopped by machete-wielding revolutionaries. While Dunn lied that he had only been trying to get a mobile signal to send an email (while frantically trying to delete the footage), his driver calmly negotiated and the birders were allowed to continue. Later that day, they agreed to cut short the whole trip after being told the rebels were talking of taking foreign hostages to get the global media’s attention.
“I was glad to leave,” he writes, “even though I had not set eyes on a single hummingbird.”
What is it about these tiny, feistybut-graceful birds – whose more than 300 species are found nowhere on Earth outside the Americas – that arouse such passion?
“They are absolutely bursting with life,” explains Dunn from his home in the Shetland Islands (where he moved 20 years ago to be “surrounded by wildlife”). “They’re like birds 2.0. More than any other bird, they have this urgency and vibrancy, which just pours out of them. They not only have an iridescence and a rainbow of plumage colours and features which really no other birds can come close to, but they have a rich cultural history as well.
“Also, they’re really fearless. They’ll just feed completely unfazed by the proximity of people and so where other birds are shy and retiring, we would always have noticed hummingbirds.”
His favourite is, “by a long way”, the marvellous spatuletail, found in Peru. “It’s a preposterous tiny little bird but with these huge long filaments of tail feathers with some large feathery iridescent discs on the end. It was discovered in the early 19th century and was known only from one specimen until the late 1800s, when some more birds were found.
“When I saw my first example of that bird, my jaw literally fell open. I realised it wasn’t just a figure of speech. It was the moment when I kind of experienced what [Victorian art critic John] Ruskin described. It was an ‘epoch in my life’.”
Even the names mesmerise Dunn – above all, the velvet-purple coronet. He was “euphoric” and “in love”
after he saw his first in Ecuador. The 47-year-old says he himself is more like a bowerbird, excited by brightly coloured objects (his last book traced his search of Britain’s orchids). But his hunger to observe as many hummingbirds as he could was also fuelled by a more disconcerting drive.
“I’m conscious that I’m seeing some things which may be lost within my lifetime, and that’s a really chastening and difficult emotion to process.
“It makes you feel uncomfortable when you look a bird in the eye that morning and in the afternoon you’re talking to someone who says it’s probably doomed to extinction.”
Hummingbirds are, Dunn writes, “a fragile symbol of nature’s vulnerability”. As they are so highly evolved, they “might well be one of the first species to react to altered circumstances we may not yet comprehend or discern”.
While the author and photographer says he has faith there will still be hummingbirds in a century’s time, he laments that “some will undoubtedly be lost”.
That is in part to do with the birds’ exploitation, which stretches back to their killing for use in 16thcentury Christian-themed feather mosaics and what came to be known as “murderous millinery” 300 years later. They are still harvested nowadays in Peru, where their hearts and tail feathers are considered by some to be a potent aphrodisiac and where drinking their blood is said to cure epilepsy and heart problems.
In Mexico, chuparosas – the husks of hummingbirds threaded on to red string, “one above another like macabre fruit hung out to dry” – are sold as love charms.
But in the main, it is down to a global failure to halt deforestation, habitat loss and climate change. Dunn has little confidence that the COP26 UN Conference due to be held in Glasgow in November will mark a turning point.
“There needs to be a sea change of how our economies operate. People have talked about building back better – well, those are just words, aren’t they? I remain to be convinced that anything meaningful will come out of COP, I’m afraid.”
How, I ask, would he feel if his readers were inspired to follow in his footsteps, with all the plane journeys that would involve? “I think it’s unlikely, but I would feel very uneasy about it,” says Dunn, who hesitates because of what he saw in the Peruvian Andes.
“It was only when some of the locals realised that birdwatchers were prepared to come to this particular valley that they started to actually place a value in the bird itself and so conservation projects started locally at grassroots level to conserve its habitat and return some of the agricultural land back to something where the bird could prosper.
“But reconciling that with the carbon involved to actually travel to see things… it’s a paradox which I’m not sure I have an answer to.”
Dunn says “it is the work of a lifetime to lay eyes upon every” species – so where does his quest go next?
“There are loads of hummingbirds I’d like to see, but will I go and see them?” He pauses. “I doubt it actually. I kind of feel that I’ve been to South America as much as perhaps I should.
“I think my days of long-haul travel are probably behind me now.”
For his readers who care about the planet and “the most colourful canary in the coalmine”, the pages of his travelogue may have to be as close as they ever flutter to one of nature’s most charismatic characters.
‘The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds’ by Jon Dunn is out now (Bloomsbury, £20)
FAST FACTS: HUMMINGBIRDS
- The hummingbird – according to a despatch to the Royal Society of London in 1670 – is “so called from the humming noise it maketh whil’st it flies”.
- One of the collective nouns used for hummingbirds is a “bouquet”.
- Their wings beat up to 200 times per second, allowing them to hover and feed on nectar-rich flowers. They also consume small flying insects. Their hearts beat up to 1,200 times per minute; the human average is about 80. They are the only birds that can fly backwards.
- Hummingbirds can flick their tongues into a flower 18 times per second. The tongues are so long that, when retracted, they coil inside the birds’ heads around their skulls and eyes.
- The bee hummingbird, native to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world. Males are on average 5.5cm long and weigh less than a 1p coin.