The hummingbird is an outlier in the avian world. For their size, they have the longest migration, the fastest flight (by body length), largest brain, largest heart, fastest wing-beat. They are the only birds that can fly backwards, have the least amount of feathers, lay the smallest eggs (yet the largest in proportion to their bodies), and despite being the smallest bird in the world, are among the most aggressive in defending their territory, even against birds like jays and crows that are literally hundreds or thousands of times larger. The iridescent, mulit-faceted gorget of the males, shifting in brilliant colors, catches our eye, and our attention.
(Compiled by Dillon Horger from publicly available sources such as published literature and websites)
With all of these natural characteristics, there is little doubt the hummingbird inspired a sense of awe and confounded humankind since the first time Native American ancestors crossed over the Beringian land bridge and glimpsed a Rufous hummingbird flitting like a glinting ember across a summer meadow or hovering, wings ablur, while delicately feeding from ephemeral flowers. The Rufous hummingbird would soon make their arduous 2,700-mile journey from Alaska down to the Mexican states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Sinaloa, and more. Whereas this journey will take mere days or weeks for the hummingbird, it will be many thousands of years before the people known as the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Maya would arrive and settle in this lush land.
Assorted scientists— ornithologists, aeronautical engineers, physicists, and more—are still actively studying hummingbirds, not only to learn more about their amazing attributes, but also how to possibly apply these qualities to applied science. And even with modern technology, we are still learning about their physiology, biology, and natural history. Native Americans explained the seemingly “magical” traits through a rich culture of folklore, myths, and spiritual revelations.. These legends span the entire length of the Americas, from the Alaskan range of the aforementioned Rufous hummingbird and the Inuit peoples, to the Firecrown hummingbirds and Yamana nation in Tierra del Fuego.
The maps and charts are an attempt to catalogue some of the most prominent stories and allow the reader to discover the similarities, sometimes quite striking and transcending thousands of miles of geographic range. Much can be gleaned from the stories themselves. Aside from giving insight into the imagination and culture that was in many ways far more attuned to the natural world than modern humans, much of the folklore has an underlying moral lesson that applies today as much as it did thousands of years ago.
These stories tell not only of hummingbirds, but of human nature, humans interacting with nature, and of ageless lessons we can learn from the Native Americans’ ubiquitous Hummingbird Teacher.
We will be actively searching for more Native American hummingbird folklore and adding them to these archives—so please bookmark our page to stay informed and please contact us to share your stories.
Conservation needs of hummingbird populations are similar to other animal populations. They need resources and habitat for their survival, successful reproduction, and maintaining thriving populations. Three primary threats—global climate change, invasive species, and habitat destruction signal the highest concern for hummingbirds. All hummingbirds face habitat loss and degradation of their nectar corridors as millions of acres of vegetation continue to be lost to extensive agriculture, logging, urban development, and climate change.
Because hummingbirds are pollinators and depend almost completely on nectar for their energy supply, their survival depends upon reliable sources of suitable nectar-producing plants. Perhaps, the greatest threats to hummingbird survival is the effect of changing climates on flowering phenology, where even minor changes in climate can produce large changes in nectar availability and in blooming dates that may decouple the mutualism between hummingbirds and the plants they pollinate.
In addition to nectar, hummingbirds prey upon insects for their main source of protein, but there are large gaps in our knowledge about the real dietary importance of insects. For many hummingbird species, aquatic insects are important prey items during the nesting cycle;thus, management of water resources is likely an important conservation issue as well.
Forests are the primary habitat for over 80% of hummingbird species and these woodlands have the highest number of at-risk hummingbird species. Loss of forest habitat either by direct destruction or alteration by invasive plants is of great concern. Modification of hummingbird habitats continues to increase and will likely change the distribution and viability of hummingbird communities.
Despite their wide distribution and cultural popularity of hummingbirds, knowledge of their basic life history and biology has many fundamental gaps. For many species, gaps in breeding biology need to become a priority for future research. For example, nests are un-described for over 60% of the 48 currently threatened or endangered hummingbird species. Additionally, the physiology of hummingbirds during reproduction is almost completely unknown and habitat requirements for all life phases are not fully understood for most species.
Finally, trend data for most hummingbird species are insufficient or non-existent. Existing long-term population trend data are considered adequate for only 4 of the 16 species that regularly breed in the US and Canada. To maintain thriving hummingbird populations, it is important to understand (1) trends in hummingbird distribution, abundance, and movement patterns; (2) population dynamics, such as survivorship, productivity, and other demographic factors; (3) the effects of broader resource changes on hummingbirds; and (4) emerging threats or problem