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First Hummer East

My books are alive. No, not just in the metaphorical way; they’re alive, active, animated. There’s no other way to explain my waking up each morning to find them in disorder—no matter how carefully and how systematically I think I’ve arranged them, the books go all helter-skelter when I’m not looking, concealing the one title I happen to need when I turn to the shelf.

Today, though, the books outsmarted themselves. In their endless striving for the perfectly random, they somehow brought the first and the sixth editions of the National Geographic guide to adjacent spots on the shelf. And so I spent a couple of happy hours with the two open on the desk in front of me, surveying the changes in the books and the birds over the past thirty-some years.

BOY 2014Try it yourself. Cast a glance at the Streptopelia doves: the Eurasian collared-dove is missing entirely from NatGeo I, but in the most recent edition, it stains the range map purple from southeast Alaska to the Yucatan. Or consider the southward and westward expansion of the lesser black-backed gull, no longer entirely unexpected in any North American state or province. And while you’re at it, have a look at the ABA’s 2014 bird of the year.

In 1983, I was nineteen, the Soviet Union was indestructible, and the rufous hummingbird was “casual in fall in the east,” unmapped in NatGeo east of Montana. A generation later—well, I’m past the half-century mark, Russia is in resurgence, and the ferocious little rusty bird is a more or less regular visitor to the entire US and an almost expected winter resident on the Gulf Coast east to Florida. It’s still a nice day for those of us east of the Mississippi when one shows up at the feeder, but the experience is one of pleasure, not of astonishment.

Pondering the push of the rufous hummingbird, I began, inevitably, to wonder when the first individual had buzzed east in search of sugar water and autumn flowers. I knew that the first edition of the Peterson guide did not list the species. What I did not know was that by 1934, when that book was published, the first rufous hummingbird known from eastern North American had been slumbering on its back in a museum drawer for a quarter of a century.

In mid-November 1928, the American Ornithologists’ Union assembled in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the happy duty of Alexander Sprunt, Jr., to lead a small group of his colleagues through the collections of the Charleston Museum—where a surprise awaited them.

As Sprunt reported in the pages of the Auk, Joseph H. Riley, associate curator of birds at the Smithsonian, noticed an oddly prepared hummingbird skin in the drawers: the bird had been

flattened out under a small piece of glass, bound around with strips of passe partout…. It was so preserved because of the very tender condition of the skin when the bird was taken.

The specimen was labeled as a ruby-throated hummingbird, but the little group—in addition to Sprunt and Riley, it included Harry Swarth, James Fleming, and Joseph Mailliard—“saw at once” that it was the representative of a different species. Riley took the bird with him to Washington, where he was able to identify it as a rufous hummingbird, the first ever seen or shot in eastern North America.

It turns out that the bird had gone unrecognized for nearly twenty years. “Taken on Carolina Street in Charleston on December 18,” 1909, the bird met its end at the hands of Edward Hyer, who would go on to serve as a curator at the Kent Scientific Institute of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hyer handed the “much worn” specimen over to Burnham and Rhett Chamberlain, the former of whom—later the co-author of Sprunt’s South Carolina Bird Life—was responsible for the hummingbird’s peculiar preparation.

The timing was good for the true identity of Hyer’s bird to be inserted into the 1931 edition of the AOU Check-list. The 1957 edition of that list added records from Louisiana and Florida, and by 1983, there was no longer need to cite individual reports for a species now occurring casually “from Nova Scotia south to central Georgia and southern Florida.”

What the next editions of the Check-list and of your favorite field guides will have to say about the rufous hummingbirds of the east is anyone’s guess. Will their numbers and range continue to grow, or will climate change push the species north into extinction? The one thing we can know for certain now is that rufous hummingbirds are every bit as mobile as my wandering books.

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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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  • Ted Floyd

    What a great specimen of “living history” this short note is! Thanks, Rick.

    Just to let folks know, the imminent September/October Birding has an article, by Susan Bonfield, on the strange ways of the Rufous Hummingbird. The bird is distinctive, of course, and familiar, yet there is so much about the Rufous Hummingbird that we still really don’t know.

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