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Do You Remember Your First Rufous Hummingbird?

James Cook and the crew of the Resolution could hardly have forgotten theirs. In spring 1778, the expedition spent a month at anchor in Nootka Sound, trading with the local inhabitants. Mammal pelts—especially those of the abundant sea otter—were highest on the Europeans’ list of commercial desiderata, but the local birds were of interest, too, and soon the natives were bringing skins, mummies, and even a few live specimens to sell to the ship’s crew.

Rufous Hummingbird, photo via wikipedia

Rufous Hummingbird, photo via wikipedia

Most of Cook’s Nootka Sound birds would be described by Thomas Pennant in his Arctic Zoology; among them were the first red-shafted flicker and red-breasted sapsucker known to western science. And there were hummingbirds, too, “in great numbers,” which Cook thought differed

from the numerous sorts of this delicate animal already known, unless they be a mere variant

of the ruby-throated.

They weren’t. Pennant described these “brilliant crimson and copper” trochilids as a new species, eventually called the rufous hummingbird. And he added a piquant detail:

The Indians brought them to our navigators alive, with a long hair fastened to one of their legs.

Unforgettable.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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