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“A spark of genius from an extravagant god”

A hummingbird in the Costa Rican rainforest. Getty

Queen Victoria, who referred to her own children as “nasty” and “frog-like”, was rather more partial to hummingbirds, says Katherine Rundell in the London Review of Books. “It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely,” she wrote in her diary after viewing a display of 1,500 stuffed hummingbirds at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Her admiration began a craze across 19th-century Europe: hummingbirds “were pinned to turbans and arranged in groups on summer bonnets”; whole heads “were mounted and used as earrings and necklaces”. The slaughter this necessitated led to backlash: the “Plumage League”, a group of women who pledged not to wear bird feathers on their hats, was founded in 1889, and eventually became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Hummingbirds are “turbine creatures”: their hearts pump 20 times a second, and their wings beat up to 80 times a second. The smallest specimen, the male bee hummingbird, weighs less than two grams – “about as much as half a teaspoonful of sugar” – and hatches from an egg the size of a chickpea. And they see each other’s colourful plumage “more vividly than we do” – most hummingbirds perceive a spectrum of ultraviolet colours invisible to the human eye. “There is nothing I admire more than evolution.” But it’s difficult to imagine hummingbirds emerging from the “primordial murk”. “They seem as if they were made in an instant, a spark of genius from an extravagant god.”