Collections review: hummingbirds

Museum volunteer Simon Tonge spent December and January working on RAMM’s hummingbird collection. RAMM has almost 500 tiny specimens, some of which are very special. He has checked every specimen against our records as well as checking their current scientific identification. Simon shares his findings in this blog.

Hummingbirds are small, brilliantly coloured and capable of the most extraordinary hovering flight. Fuelled by sugar-rich nectar their high heart rate would kill almost any other animal. It seems that there is nothing else like them.

In fact, they are closely related to swifts and nightjars. Both are summer visitors here in Devon, but hummingbirds occur only in the Americas. All three families are members of the order Caprimulgiformes. This is a pattern that we see more and more in Ornithology – where seemingly wildly different species are shown, through the magic of DNA analysis, to be variants on a common theme.

RAMM’s hummingbirds

RAMM has a collection of hummingbirds; 496 of them to be precise. This number also includes a few exquisitely made nests. There are 119 species; about a third of the known total.

Little, large and very rare

The collection includes both the largest and smallest species. The bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is the world’s smallest bird at just 6cm. It is also known as Princess Helena’s hummer. In 1914 Oscar Tollin collected RAMM’s male specimens in Guantanamo in Cuba. They weighed 1.8 g.

The giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) reaches 22cm.

There is also a beautiful specimen of the critically endangered Juan Fernandez Firecrown (Sephanoides fernandensis). It is from the archipelago off Chile where the legend of Robinson Crusoe was born.

Type specimen

The most important hummingbird in the collection is a sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera caerulescens). The reason it is important is because it is a ‘holotype specimen’. This means that when Willoughby Lowe published his description of this subspecies it was this exact specimen he used. Even though caerulescens is no longer recognised as a valid taxon the name is still available should that change in the future. The specimen must be available to researchers for future study.Holotype specimen of the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera caerulescens)Holotype specimen of the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera caerulescens)

A mystery

Only one specimen defied my attempt to identify it. I suspect it may be a hybrid, something for which hummingbirds are rather notorious.

Review method

Collections reviews take time, patience and a systematic approach. I checked the identity of every single specimen against online databases; checking that the data included on the museum’s Filemaker database were accurate and up to date; and that the specimen was indeed in the place where the database said it was. Hummingbirds can be tough to identify as many are tiny, and very similar to each other. We found more than 20 specimens that were not properly on the database; 25 that were on the database but had never been identified; and 14 that were on the database, but we could not find.

Most of the museum’s hummingbirds were collected during the 19th Century. Many were once part of tableaux of mounted birds, something every aspirational Victorian household seemed to have. Many of the museum’s specimens are what we call ‘ex-mounts’ which mean that they were part of a tableau which has been dismantled and the specimens are now study skins.

Hummingbirds are famous for the patches of brilliant iridescent feathers that they have, particularly on their heads, throats and chests. However, these only shine when the light falls very directly onto them. Within the tableaux, birds were often mounted in weird and unnatural positions to try to maximise the amount of shine available.  The result is that some of RAMM’s specimens now look rather strange.

Now that everything has been identified, is on the database, and we know where everyone is, then hopefully in 100 years’ time our successors can look back and think, ‘Good job, guys’!

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