Hummingbird's glories: a leisurely look

Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior. A Photographic Study of the North American Species, text by Esther Quesada Tyrrell, photographs by Robert A. Tyrrell. New York: Crown Publishers. 212 pp. $35. ``Tresses of the daystar'' is its ancient Mexican name. ``Flower kisser'' the Portuguese call it. More prosaically, the English name is hummingbird. But everyone calls it a jewel, and the hummingbird aviary in a zoo is referred to as the ``Jewel Room.''

In spite of the obvious attractions of the tiniest bird of all, not as much has been known about it as one would think. Ancient peoples of the Americas (the only part of the globe where hummingbirds live) hunted it for its feathers, which they used for ritual garments, or for its body, which became a love amulet. But scientific knowledge of the little gem came only recently. As a result, there aren't many books on hummingbirds.

Robert Tyrrell discovered this after trying to photograph an Anna's Hummingbird in his mother's garden. The tiny jeweled acrobat was far too fast for his camera, and when he and his wife, Esther, sought information about the elusive quarry, it was difficult to find. They determined to produce a book themselves. It was ten years in the making.

Earlier, Crawford Greenwalt produced an astounding book of photographs of South American hummingbirds, capturing details of their flight with the aid of a strobe light. Alexander Skutch wrote about the home life of the hummers in Costa Rica. About the same time that the Tyrrells became interested in hummingbirds, Paul Johnsgaard began to collate information about which hummingbirds were associated with which flowers in North America, along with other field-guide data, and published his book, complete with beautiful paintings.

The Tyrrells now contribute a good roundup of the latest findings about hummingbirds, including a field-guide section. It is Robert Tyrrell's photographic documentation, however, that really puts this book out front. Using a strobe unit, he recorded some remarkable discoveries about hummingbird behavior. He gives us shots of birds courting, fighting, nesting, fledging, learning to fly, feeding, preening, and just doing nothing. We learn why the feathers have that jeweled appearance or iridescence.

The Tyrrells are to be congratulated for their curiosity, perseverance, industry, and skill. Their book includes a list of hummingbird-pollinated wildflowers, a list of the hummingbirds of the world, a bibliography, an index, the portfolio, and biology and behavior sections.

Mary S. Cowen is a free-lance writer and longtime bird watcher.

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