Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds


Jon Dunn
Bloomsbury Publishing, £20 (hardback)

Captivatingly written, and gorgeously illustrated with the author’s own photographs, this is a heartfelt paean to hummingbirds.

Endemic to the Americas, the majority of the over 300 hummingbird species are concentrated in the neotropics, although hardy species survive in the harsher climes of Tierra del Fuego and Alaska. Perhaps even more impressive for such small birds, some of those Alaskan hummingbirds migrate from Florida, 3500 miles away, although others have more limited ranges. Exploring the length of the American continent in search of hummingbirds, the author introduces us to many such memorable characters and locales.

We also learn about hummingbirds’ unique biology, including their co-evolution with the exotic blooms that depend on them as pollinators as much as the birds rely on their high-energy nectar. Hummingbird hearts beat at an incredible 1200 times per minute, powering their relatively huge pectoral muscles to beat their blurred wings between fifty and 200 times per second. No wonder they hum so loudly.

Also described is the cultural significance of these iridescent marvels, both in their native Americas – it is no coincidence that one of the two-thousand-year-old images in Peru’s Nazca Desert is of a giant hummingbird – and elsewhere, for example in more recent European art and fashion. Unfortunately, their glittering plumage, attractive to Aztec emperors and Edwardian milliners alike, has led to hummingbird deaths in incomprehensible numbers.

While endemic island species like Juan Fernández Firecrown are particularly vulnerable to environmental change, other hummingbirds are also perilously close to extinction. As the author makes starkly clear, unless we respond quickly, many of the species encountered on this American odyssey may not survive the current human generation.

Mike Smith FRSB