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A Gorgeous–and Affordable–Introduction to the Hummingbirds

A review by Grant McCreary

Hummingbirds, by John C. Arvin

Gorgas Science Foundation, 2016

216 pages, $60—hardcover

One of the great milestones in the history of natural history books is John Gould’s Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming- Birds. Published in 25 parts between 1849 and 1861, the five original volumes contain an amazing 360 hand-colored lithographs; a posthumous supplement, published between 1880 and 1887, added another 58 plates to the total. These plates were—they still are are—something special. In order to better convey hummingbirds’ iridescence, Gould devised a new method of coloring the plates with gold and other metallic pigments, literally making the birds sparkle. The challenge of reproducing the hummingbirds’ colors may be a reason why no one has undertaken a similarly ambitious monograph in the more than 150 years since. The family Trochilidae remains overwhelming popular, though, and so does Gould’s art: A single plate fetches $1,000 or more today, and complete sets regularly bring more than $200,000 at auction.

Now, the Gorgas Science Foundation is taking on Gould’s mantle by publishing its own two-volume, large-format monograph of the Trochilidae. The first volume of Hummingbirds covers 127 species that regularly occur anywhere in North or Central America or the Caribbean, or slightly less than half of the family. A number of those birds are essentially South American species that also occur just over “the line”: The White-chested Emerald, for example, ranges along the northern coast of South America, but it also occurs on Trinidad, and thus is included. It’s unclear whether these same birds will also appear in the forthcoming Volume 2, but it seems unlikely, given how substantially the duplication would increase that book’s size.

Like its distinguished nineteenth-century predecessor, Hummingbirds features large plates, measuring 12×16 inches; there are 97 all told, each portraying one or two species with the birds posed naturally in typical habitat. It’s almost impossible to do these dazzling birds justice on the page, as Gould’s artists discovered, but the plates here come as close as I’ve seen. Still, some don’t quite work. Take, for example, the Blue-headed Hummingbird. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the plate, but it just doesn’t come close to capturing the spectacular bird as I remember it. Perhaps that’s attributable more to my sensitivities than to the art itself, but I imagine most readers will feel that way about one or more of these plates.

But then there’s the White-necked Jacobin. This plate, with three of the handsome birds captured in the rain, water dripping from them, is breathtaking. In my opinion, it easily surpasses its counterpart in Gould. The rest fall somewhere in between, with most on the better side of the continuum. Some of the variation in quality can be explained by the fact that three artists contributed to this volume. If you look for it, you can discern the difference in styles, but the dissimilarities are not great enough to be distracting.

The art is made all the more impressive by its size on these large pages. The birds are depicted roughly life-sized. Scale, however, is not consistent between plates, so you have the especially diminutive Calliope shown larger than life, dwarfing some larger species. The artists and designers avoid the “bird-on-a-stick” format of field guides, instead arranging the birds naturally within their habitat, often in flight but sometimes perched or at a nest, and associated with a characteristic flowering plant. A facing-page key to each plate identifies the plant (a nice touch!), the artist, and the sex, species, and subspecies (when appropriate) of each figure.

That key shares the page with the text accounts and range maps. The amount of information differs from species to species. An entire column of text is devoted to the familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird, whereas Puerto Rico’s endemic Green Mango gets maybe a third of that. Regardless of its length, each account covers the bird’s distribution, habitat, plumage (both male and female), and conservation status, including its ranking (from Least Concern to Critically Endangered) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Preferred feeding plants and any migratory tendencies are also often mentioned.

These are all things readers will want to know. However, there are some glaring omissions that keep the accounts from being as useful as they could be. Surprisingly, although relative size is sometimes indicated (“large,” “small,” and so on), the accounts do not include any measurements. Precise information about breeding behavior is likewise omitted.

Sounds and vocalizations are only rarely mentioned. In many cases, the description would be nothing more than a variation on “various chips and a humming noise in flight,” so perhaps it isn’t necessary for every account. The unique wing trill of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is described and explained at the very beginning of its account, but there is no mention of the Anna’s Hummingbird’s discordant and utterly charming song.

It should be noted that this is not an identification guide. As birders, though, the first thing we’re going to think about when seeing these plates (after appreciating their beauty) is how to identify the bird. The basic species descriptions sometimes include relevant tips. For instance, the reader discovers that the Tooth-billed Hummingbird is “unmistakable” thanks to its unique “combination of the long, straight bill and streaked underparts.” Most of the time, though, you will not get anything so unequivocal. One early plate depicts both the Pale-bellied Hermit and the very similar Long-billed Hermit. Wondering how to distinguish the two, I read the text. The only definitive clue seems to be that the Pale-bellied lacks a whitish malar stripe, “a departure from other Phaethornis.” One problem: All the birds on the plate seem to me to have whitish malar stripes. If you want help identifying hummingbirds, stick to the field guides.

The range maps use different colors for resident, breeding, and non-breeding ranges, and are sufficiently sized and scaled to show the necessary detail. National boundaries are indicated, but nothing more. For such larger countries as the United States, Mexico, and Brazil, that means that it can be difficult to discern where exactly the range extends. There are also more serious problems with some maps. The range of the Antillean Mango (treated here as a single, unsplit species) is shown to extend only to Hispaniola, omitting Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In at least two instances where multiple species are included on the same page, the maps appear below the wrong species, which will cause confusion unless you verify the range in the text.

The books’ relatively brief introduction provides a general overview of the family, with a focus on taxonomy, feeding, range, behavior, reproduction, and conservation. This general information somewhat fills in the gaps in the species accounts. Readers learn, for instance, the general kind of nest each group of hummingbirds makes. Make no mistake, though, this is not a comprehensive, in-depth natural history of the Trochilidae. You won’t learn much from the species accounts about subspecies, for example, as they are rarely mentioned and are illustrated in just a few cases.

Hummingbirds is, however, an excellent—and gorgeous—general introduction to the family and its members. The art is the gateway. No one who opens this book can avoid appreciating the plate on the page they’ve turned to. Then it’s natural to check the range map to see where the bird occurs, and maybe skim through the accounts of species that look particularly interesting. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be compelled to turn the page and repeat the process again and again. Who knows what you’ll discover?

The mid-nineteenth century was easily the golden age of fine illustrated bird books. Gould and others were publishing their famous monographs, and this guy named Audubon had just completed his masterpiece, The Birds of America. These magnificent volumes are still highly sought after and still useful today.

The new hummingbird book is not in the same league in many respects. It doesn’t have a fancy binding, and there certainly isn’t any gold leaf. But it has considerable advantages over its predecessors. Gould never saw a live hummingbird until well into his project. His plates were executed using specimens as the only reference, and are thus not always accurate in pose and background. If there are any such slips here, they cannot be blamed on ignorance. John C. Arvin has spent much time with hummingbirds throughout the hemisphere, and John P. O’Neill reviewed the plates for accuracy.

Hummingbirds is also much more affordable. Many of those “golden age” books were sold in parts, by subscription, at a price the vast majority could not afford. This first volume of Hummingbirds costs a very modest $60—though the limited edition boxed set, with a special bindings and three signed prints, will set you back $450.

Publishing a book like this at a price almost anyone can afford was feasible only because the work was done entirely “in house” at the Gorgas Science Foundation. The two most important sentences in the entire book may well be these, from the preface:

The world of publishing has changed dramatically in the last few years. With a creative staff and today’s new technology, it is now possible for small organizations such as ours to follow our own vision, take it directly to a printing house and distribute it to the public.

If more organizations can take advantage of this new paradigm and produce books like this first volume of Hummingbirds, then perhaps a new golden age is just dawning.

Grant McCreary is a software developer who loves watching birds and reading about them: It’s uncertain which one more. His passion for both led him to create The Birder’s Library, a website where he reviews bird books and other media. McCreary lives in Cumming, Georgia, with his wife and two kids.

Recommended citation:

McCreary, G. 2017. A Gorgeous–and Affordable–Introduction to the Hummingbirds [a review of Hummingbirds, vol. 1, by John C. Arvin]. Birding 49: 82-84.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Jonathan Alderfer

    As a bird painter myself, I found the lack of any mention of the three illustrators’ names quite an oversight. Enlarging the cover illustration didn’t help (too few pixels) although it appears that two of the artists may share the same last name.

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