Sunday, October 12, 2014

Birdlore: The Charming Hummingbird

 In mythology across the world, traditional folklore and stories share a common theme of creatures such as dragons, mighty eagle-like birds, ravens, big cats, or man-like apes.  However, one creature may be found unique to Native American mythology.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Arcilochus colubris) is a common sight at feeders in Missouri during summer months (photo: the Wikipedia files)
The spectacular Hummingbird is native to habitats only in the Western Hemisphere.  Among Native American tribes, these charming birds have inspired a rich cache of myths with their beautiful colors and even the tenacity they display when protecting their territory.
Hummingbirds will guard what they consider "their territory" with unbelievable ferocity (photo: Gay Schroer)
The Aztecs honor the hummingbird as part of their warrior culture.  The aggressive behavior hummingbirds display in fighting other hummingbirds or larger birds of prey in their territory is similar to the fearlessness of Aztec warriors.  The hummingbird’s nimble and swift flight ability is also reminiscent of an Aztec warrior’s agility in battle.  The Aztecs also believe that warriors fallen in battle rise to the sky and orbit the sun for four years, before transforming into a hummingbird.

Referred to as the Colibri (hummingbird) in the Caribbean, the smallest Colibri, Guani, is known to the mountain people of the Taino Indians as the most noble of the valiant Colibri (also known as the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest of all birds).

The Hummingbird is often associated with stories relating to the sun or light, bringing the rain, or gifting tobacco to the people. 

According to Mojave legend, the early people lived in a world of darkness.  The little hummingbird was sent to search for light.  Finding a twisting path to the bright upper world, the hummingbird showed the people the way to where they live today.  A Mayan myth mentions that the hummingbird is actually the sun in disguise trying to court the moon, who is disguised as a beautiful woman.

The tribes of the Hopi and Zuni will often decorate water jars with the images of hummingbirds, because it was believed the hummingbirds would intervene for the humans and convince the gods to send rain to the lands below.  A Hopi story tells of a time during a famine; a boy and girl were left at home alone while their parents went out in search of food.  The young boy made a toy hummingbird, which his sister threw into the air and it came to life.  The hummingbird flew to the center of the earth, pleading with the got of fertility to return the rains to the land.  The rains came back over the land, plants grew once more, and the children's parents returned home.

One Cherokee legend tells of a medicine man transforming into a hummingbird to recover lost tobacco seeds.  To the Pueblo people, the hummingbird is called the tobacco bird.  The hummingbird meets with Caterpillar, guardian of the tobacco plant, to receive smoke from him.  The hummingbird delivers the smoke to the shaman, so they may purify the earth.  The Arawaks, an extinct tribe of the Caribbean, also believed it was the hummingbird who brought tobacco to humans, calling him the Doctor Bird.

There are many more amazing stories and myths regarding these dimunitive, but charming birds.  So, the next time you're visiting the World Bird Sanctuary and see hummingbirds buzzing to and from the feeders, remember even the smallest of creatures can inspire the largest of legends in the human imagination.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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