Birds of the Tropics

Red-billed Tropicbird

Not far off the coast of Tobago lies a smaller, even more intensely green island, Little Tobago. Even from the shores of Tobago, eager eyes can pick out the swirling white dots that can mean only thing: Tropicbirds.

Of all the many things to look forward to on last month’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago, I anticipated none more eagerly than the chance to finally see my first wild phaethontids, like bright white feathered suns against a tropical sky.

Red-billed Tropicbird

The Red-billed Tropicbirds of Little Tobago were busy indeed during our visit, hunting the open sea and flying in and out of their nesting cliffs — all the while working hard to avoid the depredations of the sinister-looking Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Magnificent Frigatebird

The frigates were remarkably good at hazing the tropicbirds into dropping their meal. The most dramatic episode was when a frigatebird swooped in to grab a tropicbird by the long tail; for several seconds, the pirate twisted the smaller bird’s feathers until finally it defecated — and the frigatebird dropped to partake of the stream in flight. Not overly appetizing, but still something no birder would want to have missed.

Red-billed Tropicbird

With so much bustle everywhere, it was obvious that the tropicbirds were in fact breeding, an assumption quickly borne out by the discovery of incubating birds right at our chosen overlook.

Red-billed Tropicbird

This individual was sufficiently nonplussed as to get up and turn its back to us, but the others simply faced us down, confident, I suppose, in the intimidation factor provided by that sharp, blood-red bill.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Only a frigatebird would mess with a face like that.


Trinidad and Tobago: Hummingbirds

Copper-rumped Hummingbird

Copper-rumped Hummingbird

Sheer luck. Somehow over the years I’ve managed to wind up in some of the best hummingbird spots on earth, from the Huachucas of southeast Arizona to the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador (and not to forget Gibsons, British Columbia, either).

Brown Violetear

Brown Violetear

With only seventeen species on the country’s list — the same number boasted, I think, by New Mexico — Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t really make the short list when it comes to trochilid diversity.

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

But if the variety is only so-so, the abundance of birds at some sites has to be seen to be believed.

White-chested Emerald

White-chested Emerald

In a set-up familiar to anyone who’s birded the canyon resorts of southeast Arizona, long lines of hummingbird feeders hang from Newton George’s porch on Tobago. And from poles in the yard. And from the roof of the house.

The birds love it.

Newton George feeders

Each of those little green-black smudges is a perched hummingbird — most of them Copper-rumped Hummingbirds — awaiting its turn at the sugar water.

Newton George feeders

The prize species here is the Ruby Topaz, a bird with the infamous distinction of having been “harvested” in greater numbers than any other during the hummingbird crazes of the nineteenth century. Happily, this big, dark, gloriously colorful hummingbird seems to be as common as ever.

Ruby Topaz

The much less abundant White-tailed Sabrewing also visits Newton’s feeders, though on this trip we had to content ourselves with birds in the wild of Tobago’s forests, including a female on a nest within earshot of a male singing his chirping, chipping song.

White-tailed Sabrewing

Back on Trinidad, we dropped in on several fine hummingbird localities, including, naturally, the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Center.

Little Hermit

The Little Hermit, depending on your taxonomic views, is a common and familiar hummingbird throughout the tropics, but this one, perched just off the porch at Asa Wright, gave me something I don’t think I’d ever experienced before: long views of a sleeping hummingbird, motionless on its twig with the eyelids firmly closed.

Asa Wright was also one of several places where we had good looks at the bizarrely ornamented, weirdly insect-like Tufted Coquette. We saw only a few birds in full male plumage, which were greatly outnumbered by female-like individuals feeding in slow, tight circles in the verbena patches.

Tufted Coquette

The busiest place for hummingbirds on Trinidad, though, is Yerette. We had the best of both worlds there: food and feeders alike, an excellent lunch and equally excellent hummingbirds.

It was here that we finally caught up with the Green-throated Mango, our fifteenth hummingbird species for the week.


The sheer number of individual birds was nearly overwhelming, but somehow we managed.


And I think we’ll rise to the occasion on our next visit, too.

Can you figure out which two of Trinidad and Tobago’s hummingbird species we did not see? 


The Jacobiness

White-necked Jacobin

It can be hard enough to figure out how we know what we know. But it’s almost impossible to retrace the byzantine mental wanderings that made us think what we once thought.

Somehow, when I was in junior high, I managed to tangle up what little I knew about the French Revolution (then not long past) with what little I knew about hummingbirds, and convinced myself, or let myself be convinced, that the dazzling White-necked Jacobin had taken its odd name from the faction that seized power in the Convention in spring of 1793 — and from the bright slash across the nape, white in the big hummingbird but tending rather to the scarlet in Robespierre and his gang.

White-necked Jacobin

Nonsense. Spun from whole cloth, all of it.

The Friends of the Constitution just happened to meet in a former convent in the rue St-Jacques, and the bird just happens to have a hooded appearance recalling the cowled habit worn by the Jacobin Dominicans of eighteenth-century France.

White-necked Jacobin

The hummingbirds haven’t always been called jacobins in English, however. George Edwards, whose plate and description provided the basis for the scientific name given the species by Linnaeus fifteen years later, called it simply the “White-belly’d Hummingbird,” noting with approval that

the Colours in this Bird, as in most of this Kind, seem to be mixed with fine golden Threads, which make the whole Bird appear very splendid, when exposed to the Sun-beams.

Edwards, 1743, White-bellied Hummingbird

Edwards’s no-nonsense, descriptive name was taken over by John Latham, who used it for forty years, including the White-bellied Humming-Bird in both the General Synopsis of 1782 and his 1822 General History.

Latham also includes accounts of the “Spotted” or “Spotted-necked” hummingbird, based on the “colibri piqueté” of Brisson: by the time he came to write the General History, however, Latham could inform his reader that other ornithologists (most notably Audebert and Vieillot) had tentatively identified this and other “varieties” as the females or young of the White-bellied. This was not the first and would not be the last time that ornithology put asunder what God had joined together.

George Shaw, meanwhile, in the unjustly ignored General Zoologytook his nomenclatural cues from Brisson, rendering the French ornithologist’s “oiseau-mouche à collier” as the White-collared Hummingbird. William Jardine, too, adopted that very appropriate and very dull name for what was in its day probably the most-read English-language book on the trochilids.

Those British ornithologists ignored the fact that across the Channel, the Comte de Buffon and his collaborators had in fact given the bird two names. The nineteenth hummingbird species in the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (completed six years before the fall of the Bastille) is “l’oiseau-mouche à collier — dit la Jacobine.” Says Buffon,

It is, obviously, the distribution of white in the bird’s plumage that gave rise to the idea of calling it Jacobine.

Pll enluminées 640

No surprise, of course, that an English hummingbird name should have its origin in a French hummingbird name. But look close: the French name is feminine, referring not to the Dominican monks of St-Jacques but to their female counterparts. In the French onomastic tradition, this brightly colored male hummingbird is named for the resemblance of its plumage to the habit of a nun.

Once sanctioned by Buffon, the name naturally caught on. Audebert and Vieillot used it in their monumental Oiseaux dorés,

Oiseaux dorés pl 24

as did Lesson in his Trochilidées, in the Traité d’ornithologie, and, in greatest detail, in the Compléments de Buffon, where this most prolific of trochidologists reviews the “variants” of “la jacobine” that over the years had been classed as distinct species.

Lesson, by Ambroise Tardieu

Lesson’s classification, in which these hummingbirds formed the “13th Race,” was rendered into English in its entirety in the Penny Cyclopaedia of 1843. The translator, for reasons unstated, transformed the feminine and female “jacobines” into male and masculine “jacobins.”

By the time John Gould began the publication of his famous Monograph of the Trochilidae at the end of that decade, the name Jacobin seems to have become the standard in English works — always the masculine form, without the tell-tale terminal “e.”

Gould Monograph

Jobling, in an entry covering cuckoos and pigeons and, yes, hummingbirds, tells us that

the terms Jacobin and Dominican [are] applied as epithets to pied birds whose plumage mirrored the black and white vestments, hoods and cloaks of the Jacobin or Dominican friars.

It’s not as good a story as the wild and ignorant imaginings of childhood, and in the case of the hummingbird, it’s not quite right, either.

Next time someone tells you the bird is named for a monk, you can gently correct them. And if you want, you can join me in calling them jacobinesses.


The Russet-clothed Brotherhood

Screenshot 2013-12-19 14.28.52

I knew in advance how this one was going to work out: the OED would lead me to the earliest citations for the English hummingbird label “hermit,” and a little bit of e-drudgery would let me push the name back to its apparent source, probably among the French trochilidistes of the early nineteenth century. And along the way, perhaps I would find an unexpected motivation for the now opaque metaphor that compares these birds to the early desert ascetics.

That, after all, is how scholarship works — even when it comes to so trivial a question as that and so ephemeral a medium as this.

Little Hermit

Well, not always. In this case, the citation hunters in Oxford fail us. The French ermite appears to be modeled on the English hermit. And if we trust John Gould, the name seems to be due entirely to the bird’s

frequenting the darkest and most retired parts of the forest … affecting dark and gloomy situations.

As far as I have been able to discover, it was Gould who introduced the name to ornithology. Interestingly, though, he makes no claim to originality: Gould’s Introduction to the Trochilidae expressly says that these hummingbirds, “remarkable for being destitute of metallic brilliancy,” are “popularly known by the name of Hermits.”

I was surprised to learn that hermits were “popularly known” at all in the English-speaking world of the mid-nineteenth century. As it turns out, though, Gould wasn’t referring to the streets of London. In the 1849 description of Phaëthornis eremita, he explains the source of the species epithet (later elevated by Reichenbach to generic status): this bird, he writes, is the

Little Hermit of the collectors of Para

in Brazil. And just who were those collectors?

The residents of many parts of Brazil employ their slaves in collection, skinning, and preserving them for the European market; and many thousands are annually sent from Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Pernambuco.

One segment of the clientele didn’t care much for dull hummingbirds, though: the Brazilian collectors

also supply the inmates of the convents with many of the more richly coloured species for the manufacture of artificial-feather flowers.

It is my guess — an especially safe guess, given that it can never be tested or disproved — that the Luso-Brazilian “eremita” originated at the door of one of those monasteries, where a monk or a nun declined to pay for a brown hummingbird, rejecting it as too drab, like the sackcloth-clad hermits of the wilderness, what Alfred Newton would later call “the russet-clothed brotherhood.”



Surly Motmots, Pouting Jacamars, and a Gloomy Birder

Leotaud Road Léotaud

On his long journey through the West Indies in 1888, the Canadian cleric Léon Provancher attended a reception in Trinidad at the home of the eccentric Sylvester Devenish, where he made the acquaintance of Dr. Léotaud, “an island celebrity of whom I had already heard,” and his son-in-law, also a physician.

Provancher, fully absorbed in his host’s collections of engravings, bronzes, photographs, relics, and “ornaments of all kinds,” has no more to say about the medical men in attendance, but I want to believe that they were relatives of an even more celebrated Trinidadian, Antoine Léotaud, author of what remains nearly 150 years after its publication one of the best and most ambitious, if necessarily imperfect, neotropical ornithologies ever written.

According to an obituary quoted by Junge and Mees, Léotaud was born on Trinidad 200 years ago this New Year; he studied the sciences in Paris, eventually taking a medical degree, and returned at the age of 25 to practice in Trinidad. Léotaud’s Oiseaux was published a year before his death on January 23, 1867 from “a painful malady of fourteen months’ duration.”

I don’t know whether it is poor health, frustration at his lack of scientific resources, or a literary tristesse tropicale that is to blame for the striking tone of disappointed nostalgia that Léotaud affects in the Oiseaux.

It would be the most offensive of positivisms to draw conclusions about Léotaud’s “real life” from the attitudes he strikes in his writings. But consider the fact that in 1865, while he was hard at work on the ornithology, Léotaud was awarded the gold medal of the Medical Society of Ghent for a study entitled “Sur les causes de dépérissement des familles européennes aux Antilles” — on the sources of degeneration in European families in the Antilles.

Somebody clearly missed Paris.

Whatever Léotaud’s own state, he had some pronounced ideas about the emotional and intellectual condition of the wild birds of Trinidad.

Black Vulture with dog

The Black Vulture, for example, moves in ways

destitute of gracefulness, revealing the bird’s insignificance; even its anger results in nothing more than an exhaled grunt which evinces its stupidity; its quarrels, lacking in energy of any kind, bear the sign of weakness…. Even in the pleasures of love it exhibits those sad characteristics that it reveals in everything else; it is silent, it is clumsy, its preparations are tedious and only with great effort does it manage to accomplish that act that is normally so effortless in almost all birds.

Projection? Pathetic fallacy? Or just a bad mood?

snail kite Guyana 2007 010

Léotaud writes with greater sympathy of the Snail Kite (the photograph here is from the South American continent — we did not see the species on our visit to Trinidad and Tobago).

This bird is rarely seen here…. It is always alone, no doubt because it finds no companions…. only a few individuals come to visit us around the month of July, and thus they find themselves in conditions contrary to their usual habits.

Loneliness, in fact, seems to be a problem for many of the birds of Trinidad, if we trust Léotaud. The poor little Tropical Screech-Owl sings a song that

inspires sadness, as this bird is heard only when everything in nature is ready for slumber; its song ushers in the dusk. No doubt he is calling his companion in this way….

Trinidad Motmot

Even the beautiful Trinidad Motmot moves Léotaud to melancholy contemplation:

He prefers the dimness of our forests, which seems to suit so well the sluggishness of his movements and the sadness of his call. Having perched for a long time on a branch, he leaves it only with reluctance. Even the fires of love can barely raise him above his apathy. His call … is in no way meaningful; it is a call not of gaiety, or of anger, or of passion. And beyond that, his posture is heavy, his shape graceless… he draws attention only with his tail, [the shape of] which is one of those secrets that man will no doubt never manage to unravel. The female accompanies him almost always, but she is incapable of bringing animation to his so sad life.

Yes, motmots are notoriously calm, but rarely have they been accused of having a flat affect. The reproach makes even less sense when Léotaud turns it on the flashy Rufous-tailed Jacamar:

he remains immobile for hours at a time, and hardly stretches out his beak to grab an insect that happens to stray within his reach…. His call is weak and plaintive…. His companion follows him almost always to share this life that seems so sad and monotonous.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

The most poignant case of all seems to be that of the Green Honeycreeper.

Green Honeycreeper

I’ve always found these sturdy little frugivores a colorful delight, but Léotaud had a different impression:

Its form is not very graceful, and its posture is somewhat heavy…. Its plumage is worthy of admiration, but its weak, insignificant call draws no notice. He is not made for captivity, and deprived of his liberty, he soon converts his cage into a tomb. Nevertheless one can accustom him to his prison, but only at the cost of so much effort and patience that it is a triumph of which only some people are capable, namely those whose interest in birds is a true passion.

It is harder and harder not to imagine that the author is speaking of himself and his own circumstances in such descriptions.