Hummingbird and Passionflowers; painting by Martin Johnson Heade

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Martin Johnson Heade: Hummingbird and Passionflowers, circa 1875–1885

This spring I taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson. We spent a week on her riddle poems, and I asked the students to try to guess the answer to this one:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel—
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal—
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head—
The Mail from Tunis—probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride—

“Could it maybe be like seasons or fall or something?” one student wondered. “I was thinking it could be a rainbow or sunrise,” another suggested. “The ‘revolving Wheel’ makes me think of the sun, and the flowers turning their heads to it.” A third suspected it might be an insect: “The use of the word ‘Cochineal,’ which refers to a beetle that was crushed up to produce a red dye, makes me think that it has some red coloring on it.”

Dickinson’s riddles are capacious; all of these answers seem correct to me. A copy of the poem Dickinson sent to relatives was signed “Humming bird,” thus giving away her favored answer. But now, as I read the poem, I can’t help feeling that it hints at another kind of vanishing, the mass death of species. The revolving wheel of extinction is itself a route of evanescence.

The migration of birds is so mysterious, so thrilling, that it’s easy to see why the ancient practice of augury looked to birds in flight for signs of the future. That future, at least for birds, appears increasingly bleak; over the past fifty years, bird populations in the United States and Canada have fallen by 29 percent. Migrating birds take their bearings, or so we believe, from the sun, moon, and stars; from familiar landmarks glimpsed year after year; and even, amazingly, from sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. They are also drawn, with often catastrophic results, to the brilliant lights and reflective glass of buildings. According to some estimates, as many as a billion birds die every year in the United States flying into human-made structures. Species already at risk because of climate change, habitat loss, and the use of pesticides face the additional threat of such collisions.

According to a recent study, the ruby-throated hummingbird, the likely subject of Dickinson’s poem since it is the only hummingbird that mates and nests east of the Mississippi, is among ten bird species “disproportionately vulnerable to collision fatalities.”1 (Their western cousin the rufous hummingbird is on a steeper decline, having lost 62 percent of its population between 1966 and 2014.) These migrants from Central America bulk up before flying nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico every spring, shedding a third to a half of their body weight in the twenty-hour crossing. It is heartbreaking to imagine a premature end to their travels before they reach their nesting grounds.

In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop wondered what possesses people to journey great distances “to see…the tiniest green hummingbird in the world.” The English birder and photographer Jon Dunn offers some answers in The Glitter in the Green, which follows his search for hummingbirds—including the smallest, the bee hummingbird, or zunzuncito, of Cuba, which weighs less than a dime—from their northernmost point of migration, in Alaska, to their southernmost habitat in Tierra del Fuego. Several hummingbird species are on the verge of extinction; Dunn’s quest was “to see some of them before they were gone altogether.”

Hummingbirds, whose range is restricted to the Americas, were among the plunder Europeans brought back from the New World. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was already clear that the lucrative trade in feathers for women’s hats—“murderous millinery”—along with the predations of sport hunters, might render hummingbirds extinct. At an 1887 auction in London, 400,000 dead hummingbirds were for sale. As late as 1932, 25,000 Brazilian hummingbirds were shipped to Italy to decorate chocolate boxes. And hummingbirds are still harvested in Mexico for love charms (as in Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird). As a forerunner to his own quest to encounter hummingbirds in their native habitats, Dunn mentions the artist and hummingbird enthusiast Martin Johnson Heade, who traveled to Brazil (just once, in 1863, and not three times, as Dunn says). “Between the frosts, taxidermists, and milliners,” Heade later wrote, “I fear they’ll be almost exterminated in a few years.”

Dunn combines an intense emotional response to the radiant appearance of each transfixing bird with a pervasive anxiety that many of the birds he witnesses are on the verge of extinction. His first encounter with the marvelous spatuletail, in Peru, fuses vivid metaphor and close observation:

A searing bolt of turquoise, the colour of Caribbean water over white coral sand, shone from its throat above a tiny white body bisected by an inky-black stripe. Beneath him hung two midnight-purple discs, seeming unattached from the bird itself, so thin were the filaments of feather spine that supported them.

Among the rarest of hummingbirds, its habitat shrinking with the rapid deforestation of the Amazon, the spatuletail leaves in its wake, for Dunn, “a potent mix of elation and melancholy.” After catching sight of the Juan Fernández firecrown (“an intense dazzle of searing orange”) on a remote Pacific island infested with invasive plant species and feral cats, Dunn writes, “For the first time in my journey through the Americas I would be looking at a species that was almost certainly doomed to be extinct within my lifetime,” adding, “I felt like I could cry at the hopelessness of it all.”


A sheaf of Dunn’s photographs celebrates some of the most visually stunning of the three-hundred-plus hummingbird species. “Beneath those psychedelic feathers,” he writes, “were a host of adaptations to a nectar-fuelled, hovering life that I found irresistible.” Reddish-pink feathers that turn iridescent in sunlight cover the head and throat of the male Anna’s hummingbird, which shows off to a potential mate by divebombing toward her from a height of a hundred feet. “He pulls up at the last possible moment,” Dunn notes, “fanning his tail as he does so, and emitting a loud chirp noise.” The speed of the courtship dive, reaching 385 body lengths per second, is “the highest known length-specific velocity attained by any vertebrate.”

A hummingbird’s flight—and its uncanny ability to hover in place—requires enormous strength and energy. Its wings, powered by pectoral muscles that account for a quarter of its bodyweight, can reach a speed of up to ninety beats per second. Maintaining such flight requires hummingbirds to consume 3.1 to 7.6 calories a day—equivalent to about 155,000 calories for a human-sized animal—“powering,” Dunn writes, “a heart that beats around twelve hundred times per minute.” Hummingbirds need to feed at short intervals on flowers and insects to sustain such a metabolism; when food is unavailable, or the temperature plummets, they sink into a hibernation-like torpor in which their heart rate and breathing slow to a near standstill.

In his 1862 book on orchids, Darwin had already identified the ways in which beak and flower had “coevolved”; certain flowers can only be pollinated by a hummingbird, and the loss of those flowers can spell doom for the birds, whose beaks have developed to reach that particular flower’s nectar. Ornithologists used to believe that hummingbird tongues, “so long that, when retracted, they coil inside the birds’ heads around their skulls and eyes,” absorbed nectar by passive capillary action. But recent research has revealed that rows of tiny flaps along the tongue open inside the flower and retract when the tongue is removed, trapping the nectar. As Dunn puts it in an elegant analogy, “The tongue, like the plants the hummingbird visits, blooms.”

In his epilogue, Dunn mentions that he has been in touch with the thriller writer and environmental activist Jeff VanderMeer, whose plots, as in his terrific Annihilation, tend to turn on ecological catastrophe, and whose latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, involves an extinct hummingbird. VanderMeer informs Dunn that he experienced “a kind of vision” when he was eight years old and gravely ill in Peru. His hotel window was against a hillside, revealing a “little biosphere of moss and lichen and ferns in front. And just then…two amazing iridescent hummingbirds appeared, courting.” His new book is built around the same bipolar dynamism that drives The Glitter in the Green: the sheer wonder of hummingbirds and the fear that we are on a path, perhaps irreversible, to losing them.

In the opening pages, the narrator, a security analyst based in an unidentified city in the Pacific Northwest, is directed to a remote storage facility where she is instructed to open a particular unit. There she finds a box containing a stuffed hummingbird posed “in midflight, attached by thick wire from below to a small pedestal.” Accompanying the bird is a sheet of paper with two words on it, “Hummingbird” and “Salamander,” and the signature “Silvina.” In the suspenseful narrative that follows, Jane learns that Silvina, the black sheep of an Argentine family that has made a fortune on fossil-fuel extraction, appears to have embraced ecoterrorism to make amends.

Jane’s increasingly desperate hunt for Silvina reveals evidence of illegal trafficking in endangered species, including the dead hummingbird in the box, the last of its kind. Silvina’s trail reaches into remote regions of the Pacific coast, where Jane stumbles upon the remnants of a mysterious utopian community. It turns out that Jane isn’t the only person trying to figure out Silvina’s whereabouts. This is the kind of thriller in which the pursuer increasingly comes to resemble her prey.


Along the way, there is a great deal of well-informed detail about hummingbirds. VanderMeer invented the species of the taxidermied hummingbird, the naiad (Selastrephes griffin), with the help of the biologist Meghan Brown. With its “iridescent black wings” and “sharp, long, thin beak,” the naiad once migrated from South America’s warming climate to woodlands in the Pacific Northwest ravaged by “unthinking development.” There is even a website for the naiad, which includes an additional contributing cause of its extinction: an invasive species supplanting the naiad’s coevolved flower—precisely the fate of the Juan Fernández hummingbird in Dunn’s Glitter in the Green.

The punning title of the traveling exhibition “Cross Pollination,” which I saw at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in North Carolina earlier this year, alludes to both pollinators and the mutual inspiration that can happen among a group of artists. Featured in the show are the works of Thomas Cole, the pioneering figure of American landscape painting, and his star pupil, Frederick Church. But the main stimulus for the show is Martin Johnson Heade, the artist who feared that hummingbirds were on the verge of extinction. Heade shared a studio with Church on 10th Street in New York City. Church had found inspiration for his famous panoramic painting The Heart of the Andes while traveling in South America; Heade determined to make the same trip, in 1863, in search of hummingbirds.

Heade’s rival, the British ornithologist John Gould, had dazzled the Victorian world with his exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851. “I have wasted my life with mineralogy,” John Ruskin remarked. “Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing. If I could only have seen a humming-bird fly, it would have been an epoch in my life.” Gould, who followed up his success with a multivolume book on hummingbird species, had never seen a hummingbird fly. His illustrations, in which the glorious birds are surrounded by white space, gave no sense of where the birds lived. Heade was determined to paint them in their natural surroundings.

It was a brilliant stroke to place, at the entry to the Reynolda exhibition, sixteen paintings from Heade’s Gems of Brazil series. The small pictures (roughly 12 by 10 inches) are arranged in a four-by-four array, suggesting both the taxonomic order of the ornithologist and the modernist grid of postwar American art. They depict fifteen hummingbird species along with a butterfly, the blue morpho, one shimmering wing brilliantly illuminated and the other in shadow. The exhibition, according to the catalog, “takes flight from this unprecedented series.”

For his Gems, Heade developed a dynamic structure that fused intimate vignettes of birdlife with sublime vistas reminiscent of Church in the background. In Heade’s Amethyst Woodstar, the hummingbirds seem like flowers sprung from the tendrils of a spiraling vine. The dreamlike pattern is so mesmerizing that it’s easy to miss the nest hanging below the birds with two hungry chicks clamoring for food, or the distant mountain range obscured by clouds. As Kate Menconeri and Julia B. Rosenbaum note in the exhibition catalog:

The wide-angle views that make up the backgrounds suggest a larger environment and provide Heade with a way to present the birds less as isolated specimens and more as part of a greater whole. With The Gems, Heade was making a different kind of landscape, one that pictures the intricate operations within nature itself. His stormy skies, parting clouds, and layered mists in which the birds operate also allude to transitions and the dynamic web of nature.

Heade developed this distinctive way of depicting hummingbirds in the wild, they suggest, by combining “scientific curiosity” and an aesthetic “sense of wonder.” Heade seems to have been aware of Darwin’s claims about the coevolution of birds and flowers. Nature, Heade wrote, “must…have intended to confine [the hummingbird’s] depredations to the flower in question…while on the other hand the flower might yield the bird exclusive sustenance in honey, as all other species are denied participation of its insects by the peculiar construction of its deep corolla.” Still, Heade was willing to bend the facts to enhance the sense of wonder. He portrayed his hummingbird pairs in domestic harmony, even though the “husband,” as he referred to the male, takes no part in nest-building or feeding the young.

In his fascinating new book on the Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849), Sanford Schwartz ventures a different provenance for the innovative structure of Heade’s paintings. Hicks is best known for his Peaceable Kingdom series, in which barnyard animals hang out with exotic beasts as though posing for a casual family photograph. In such paintings, Hicks may seem to present a utopian moment of serenity in accord with their source in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, often shortened as “the lion shall lie down with the lamb.” Schwartz, by contrast, finds something “tense and unsettling” in these paintings, as though the animals were attending “a peace conference that has only just gotten underway after a recent ceasefire.” He discerns a similar tension in Heade, who served an apprenticeship under Hicks. “Heade’s pictures, which are unlike anything in American art (or art), are thought to be inventions on his part,” Schwartz writes. However,

the structures of Heade’s and of Hicks’s scenes are the same: plants or animals are seen right at the lip of crowded, small stages, with a landscape behind them. And we look at scenes that suggest aggression or the craving of one participant for the other—here momentarily suspended.2

Late in life, Hicks painted a Noah’s Ark, “an ultimate story,” as Schwartz puts it, “of creatures on the move.” Amid “one of the most charged and beautiful skies in nineteenth-century American painting” there is a “sunny patch that will soon be obliterated,” and “countless diving birds, initially hardly visible, seem to be breaking up the storm clouds and propelling them forward simultaneously.” The tale of Noah’s ark is a story of ecological catastrophe, of course, and it concludes with a dove bearing a message of hope.

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” Dickinson wrote. But is there hope for the hummingbird?

Interestingly, both Dickinson and VanderMeer associate hummingbirds with letters. When Dickinson wants to convey how fast hummingbirds fly, she thinks of them as speedy letter-carriers: “The Mail from Tunis—probably,/An easy Morning’s Ride.” In signing the poem “Humming bird,” she portrayed herself, Helen Vendler notes, as “a poet who arrives, like the bird, quickly, vividly, and disturbingly, as she delivers, in her glittering linguistic plumage, her own exotic Mail.”3 VanderMeer’s book turns on two letters, one beginning with the word “Hummingbird” and the other, which includes the big reveal of the book, ending with it.

For Dickinson and VanderMeer, it is as though these tiny, vulnerable, magnificent birds—which Heade already feared we’d kill to the last one—had a message to deliver to us. Dunn thinks he knows what the message is. The hummingbird is “the most beautiful canary in the coalmine,” he writes, signaling that “the clock of extinction is ticking loudly.” But has the message been delivered in time to reverse the route of evanescence?