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Tiny dynamos of the sky

Hummingbirds are “dying out at alarming rates”, says Christopher Benfey in The New York Review of Books. His review of birdwatcher Jon Dunn’s book The Glitter in the Green charts the history of this enchanting species. Demand for their “psychedelic feathers” left hummingbirds vulnerable to the “lucrative trade in feathers for women’s hats” and the whims of sport hunters. At an 1887 auction in London, 400,000 dead hummingbirds were on sale. Today they’re at risk from climate change, habitat loss, pesticides and collisions with reflective glass buildings. The rufous hummingbird saw its population decline by 62% between 1966 and 2014, and the habitat of the marvellous spatuletail is “shrinking with the rapid deforestation of the Amazon”.

It’s a terrible loss: hummingbirds are “transfixing” creatures that require “enormous strength and energy” to hover in one place. Their hearts beat about 12,000 times a minute and they consume up to 7.6 calories a day – the equivalent of 155,000 calories for a human. Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly for 24 hours nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico every spring, shedding up to half their body weight. The hummingbird is “the most beautiful canary in the coalmine”, says Dunn, signalling that “the clock of extinction is ticking loudly”.

Read the full review here. The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn is published by Bloomsbury at £20.