Habitat destruction and witchcraft threaten the hummingbird

In the Mexican imagination the visit of a hummingbird It is a sign of good omen. According to a belief inherited from pre-Hispanic civilizations, with their fleeting appearance and more than 80 beats of their wings against the air per second, these tiny birds carry the fleeting message from our dead.

“In the mesoamerican culture hummingbirds were associated with war and love,” she says. Maria del Coro Arizmendi, one of the leading experts on these birds that inhabit the American continent, 330 species recorded from Alaska to Chile. It is estimated that up to 58 of them are distributed in Mexico, of which 14 are endemic. But, as the ornithologist warns, “there could be many more.”

The destruction and fragmentation of their habitat They currently represent one of the greatest threats to these very special animals, the smallest and most diverse group of birds. “According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in our country there are nine threatened species, two endangered and six under special protection”, points out the biologist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has been studying hummingbirds for more than three decades and is the author of the most complete guide made.

Colloquially known with suckers“son extraordinary pollinators. More than 10,000 plants in North and South America depend on them”, Arizmendi highlights of these animals that, with their long awl-shaped beaks, pierce the flowers in a matter of seconds to extract food. They are adapted for keep the flight while they drink the nectar”, explains the expert.

To do this, these iridescent plumed birds, whose feathers vary from brown to shiny metallic depending on the brightness of the sun, they fly back and forthunfold their little body up and down, vertically and horizontally, to conquer the aerial environment at will, “an impressive acrobatic capacity also related to courtship in some species”, highlights John Francis Ornelas Rodriguezresearcher at the Institute of Ecology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Inecol) and another of the most prominent Mexican experts on hummingbirds.

“To maintain such an activity, they need a lot of energy, which is why they spend all their time eat nectartheir metabolism requires a constant dose of sugar”, adds the ornithologist.

Hummingbirds in their nest. / Fernando Gonzalez Garcia

small but warriors

Characterized by its small size —the smallest species does not exceed 2 and a half grams—, the hummingbird is a tremendously warlike animal. Contrary to what most believe they are not sociable, they do not hang out in groups and they defend their territory like no other animal. They feed exclusively on nectar and need to eat all the time, they do not allow anyone near their flowers, who defend so aggressively. That is why they are associated with war”, explains Arizmendi, mentioning Huitzilopochtli, the Mexican God of Warthe brave warrior who turned his Mesoamerican people into the most powerful of all, “whose name translates as left-handed hummingbird.”

Contrary to the strong symbology that associates them with war, hummingbirds also represent love. According to the Mexicas, these birds would be born from Coatlicue, the fertility goddess. “And I think it’s because of the biological function they have: they dedicate their lives to pollination, which is the sexual reproduction of flowering plants”, explains the UNAM biologist.

While this “love actor” presents them as good luck, other aspects of their physiology link them to the underworld. “To maintain their metabolism, which is very fast, hummingbirds they spend the day eating all the time. They cannot go without food for more than 10 minutes because their energy would run out,” says Arizmendi.

In climates where the ambient temperature drops considerably at night, such as in Mexico City, many species enter a torpor phase, a hibernation that they carry out every night. “Just like bears drop metabolism, hummingbirds drop their body temperature down to 19°C. and they only maintain minimal vital functions, such as breathing and heartbeat”, points out the expert, for whom this biological characteristic was the one that gave rise to certain beliefs.

“Most likely, our ancestors, who lived in jungles and forests, finding these birds at night like this, thought they were dead, because they stay stiff as mummies. But as soon as you put them in your hand they warm up, when the sun warms them it’s as if they revived and started to fly. Surely for this reason it is believed that they are beings that live between the world of the living and the dead, who carry their thoughts from one place to another”, affirms Arizmendi. A belief that has made them victims of illegal trade.

a specimen of hummingbird while flying, in Mexico City.  / EFE/Alejandro Cruz

A specimen of hummingbird while flying, in Mexico City. / EFE/Alejandro Cruz

Hummingbirds as Santeria merchandise

“years ago They sold them at the exit of different subways From Mexico City. A man offered them stuffed on a stick for Valentine’s Day, so that the boys would win over the girls”, laments the ornithologist. Luckily, this practice disappeared, but it evolved into what is now known as moorings, amulets made with herbs and healing extracts such as honey, a lock of hair, a virgin’s medal, a photograph of the desired person and many other symbolic details that are they tie the dead bird with a string to conjure love and manipulate emotions.

These types of talismans can easily be found in the legendary Sonoran Marketthe largest bazaar of black magic in all of Latin America: labyrinthine corridors where remedies for malaise or migraine are presented in small vials labeled natural oils, and the disease, be it cancer or “air sickness” , it is treated with potions and consulting the astral charts, going to shamans or praying to San Judas.

In this black market, denounced for years for animal abuse, black cats and roosters, and even goats, are sold for Santeria sacrifices. “And the lovesickness it is cured by forging spells with hummingbirds”, says Arizmendi ironically, who was part of the complaint filed against this market thanks to an investigation originating in the United States, where the black market for Mexican hummingbirds arrived. “However, the practice of capturing them for love spells does not come from Mesoamerican cultures but from Cuban Santeria,” the specialist qualifies.

In 2009, researchers documented more than 650 dead hummingbirds for sale at the Sonora Market. The specimens had been caught with nets and slingshots. “At that time, its price did not exceed 100 pesos (less than 5 euros),” emphasizes the researcher, who regrets that the police raid only stopped the illegal business for a brief time. “Then they sold them again,” she says.

Hummingbird 'Amazilia rutila' in Mexico.  / Fernando Gonzalez Garcia

Hummingbird ‘Amazilia rutila’ in Mexico. / Fernando Gonzalez Garcia

According to another investigation carried out in 2019, the value of these dead animals had increased to 150 pesos, putting several of the hummingbirds in the capital, which is home to up to 17 species, at risk.

Although fewer and fewer, hummingbirds they continue to be sold for esoteric purposes. “The Government does nothing because it seems to them an unimportant matter, but it is a problem that must be solved with education,” laments Arizmendi. Although slaughter and sale are prohibited in Mexico and the law (NOM-059) grants strict protections to 20 species and subspecies of hummingbirds, there are no effective initiatives to stop their illegal trade.

And while some face the danger of disappearing, like the earwig hummingbird, Doricha elizaendemic to Mexico, the bird that Ornelas knows best, the same one that in the middle of the pandemic confinement peeked into his partner’s garden Fernando Gonzalez-Garcia. Indifferent to the legends that promise promises of good luck, this biologist took the visit of the hummingbird as a professional prediction: “When it appeared in my house I decided that I would dedicate myself to studying them,” says the ornithologist, also a researcher at Inecol, who until then he was investigating another bird, the horned peacock, better known as the chachalaca.

More species than registered

“The earwig hummingbird is only distributed in a very reduced way in our country and has two populations separated by more than 800 kilometers. One is located north of the Yucatan peninsula, and lives among mangroves, the other in the center of Veracruz, where it lives lowland dry forests and savannahs”, points out the researcher. “It is suspected that it could be two different species,” he adds.

“Exist several hypotheses that suggest that they are different types of hummingbirds, but more studies are still needed”, points out Ornelas. “To see the population differences, the physical characters are studied, but also genetic data, DNA sequences that indicate different evolutionary rates”, explains the ornithologist, for whom in Mexico “there could be many more species than those officially registered, as happens with the earwig hummingbird”, the biologist points out.

“Although there are officially 14 endemic hummingbirds in Mexico, there are probably up to 24,” González-García agrees. But there is a lack of studies, as well as population data of the different hummingbirds that are distributed throughout the country. “Estimates are made, but have not been quantified well. If data from 30 years ago are compared, it is observed that some populations have declined in the last decade, but we do not know for sure how many there are,” Ornelas concludes.

And the dangers that threaten them every day increase: the destruction of the habitat by the Turistic development throughout the entire Mexican territory, “the land use changes for crops or the cattle pasture burning, to build houses and parking lots”, denounces Gómez-Fernández. In addition to the grasslands and jungles converted into human settlements, the wild cats They also pose a threat imminent.

More spaces are urgently needed that act as a habitat for hummingbirds and involve the whole of society in their protection”, highlights Arizmendi, who has been since 2014 promoting gardens as shelters for these birds that act as pollinators, an initiative that is being replicated in schools and public buildings. “The education is essential for its conservationwe have to be able to convey how fascinating hummingbirds are not as amulets, but as when they fly free”, concludes the ornithologist.

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