Nymphs and Gnomes, Fairies and Sylphs

What a mess.

White-chested Emerald

White-chested Emerald, Trinidad

Or am I the only one who finds it hard to keep all those sapphires and brilliants and emeralds and rubies and topazes straight?

There are so many hummingbird species, and their classification has been revised so many times over the past two centuries, that the vernacular names have inevitably become a hodgepodge of historical relics and well-meaning neologisms, often enough reflecting neither relationship nor similarity.

In 1854, Ludwig Reichenbach, director of the royal zoo in Dresden, set out to clear the decks and introduce some of that good deutsche Ordnung into trochilid nomenclature.

The hummingbirds, like many another group of beautiful and popular creatures, have been worked on more in a spirit of pleasurable dilettantism than according to the stricter requirements of scholarship.

Firmly grounded in the powerful traditions of German Idealism and organicist aesthetics, Reichenbach lays out his taxonomic principles with great clarity:

It is necessary in a scientific work that we have always before our eyes the clear need to trace the development of the Type through its degrees of intensification, that we correctly evaluate the individual components in their significance to the whole, and that we be able to demonstrate the culmination of the Type as well as its deflection to heterogeneity.

Reichenbach goes on to observe that

Heaven and earth and all sciences and arts, even music in its chords and systems of tuning, are all four-parted, just as are all living things… and this quaternary system of divisions, whose accord echoes through all of Nature, … can be called a system that rests stable in itself.

All that theoretical hoohaw behind him, Reichenbach goes on to establish (you guessed it) four large categories –families, I suppose, though he doesn’t use that word — of hummingbirds: Nymphs, Fairies, Sylphs, and Gnomes. 

Each of those four large groups is further subdivided into four smaller categories — subfamilies — one of which is “typical” and the other three of which are “deflected into heterogeneity” by their similarity to one of the other families.

Thus, for example, there are “nymph-nymphs,” but there are also “fairy-nymphs,” “sylph-nymphs,” and “gnome-nymphs.”

Each of those subfamilies in turn comprises four genera, each of which in turn can be broken into four subgenera (again, only loosely translating Reichenbach’s categories into modern taxonomic terms). All of the known species of hummingbirds are then fitted into this scheme.

White-chested Emerald

Our White-chested Emerald, for example, one of the most abundant and familiar trochilids of Trinidad and Tobago, would be a member of the family Fayae, the Fairies, which Reichenbach defines as “creeper-like” hummingbirds without head ornaments and with arched bills.

That family “culminates” in the subfamily Ochruraethe Fairy-Fairies, but the emerald and its close relatives apparently tend to the “heterogeneous,” making them members of the subfamily Hylocharinae, the Nymph-Fairies, the third genus of which is Amazilia.

Screenshot 2013-12-18 13.57.48

Richenbach’s “perfect” hummingbird, the culmination of the Type, has to be a Sylph, a member of the “genuine or typical Trochilideae: adorned with helmet, crest, ear-tufts, or extensive brilliant iridescence.” Naturally (or artificially, one might say), there are sylphs and then there are sylphs, but the ultimate hummer should be a Sylph-Sylph, of the subfamily Trochilinae. The first genus listed there is Trochilus — and the first species Reichenbach cites is Trochilus Colubris Linn. 1766.

Behold THE hummingbird,

Ruby-throated Hummingbird


the Ruby-throated Sylph-Sylph.