Hummingbirds and Harlequins

Beauty can be too much for words. So it is with the charm of what many consider the loveliest of the world’s birds, the hummingbirds: Overcome by the dazzling colors of those first tiny skins, early European naturalists reached to the limits of their vocabularies to describe them. The result, nearly five centuries after the first specimens were brought back from a then truly New World, is a large set of remarkably evocative names, hillstars and woodstars, helmetcrests and plumeleteers, jacobins and incas, metaltails and thornbills, emeralds and sapphires and topazes and rubies.

View Full Size Image

The birds, of course, are every bit as fantastic as their monikers. The 1907 edition of The Americana, the authoritative North American encyclopedia of its day, gave its readers a glimpse into the vast variety of color and adornment so typical of this large family, from the Horned Sungem to the Hyacinth Visorbearer. One of the thirteen birds shown on this appealing plate, however, is conspicuously absent from any modern list of hummingbirds: the extraordinarily colored Harlequin Hummingbird.

That bird was first made known to science a century and a quarter before it was depicted in The Americana. In 1782, John Latham described his new species from a specimen in the collections of the British Museum.

View Full Size Image

Unfortunately, Latham notes, that unique skin had “no history annexed to it,” and so he was unable to offer any information about the range or the habits of the species he named the Harlequin Humming-Bird.

Five years later, Latham came across another source of information, a drawing by the famous watercolorist Thomas Davies, who had been in the West Indies in 1786. Davies’s rendering of the bird differs from the British Museum specimen, Latham tells us, in its greater length—five inches rather than four and a half—and in the presence of a narrow band of blue green on the back of the head, a character well shown by Latham’s plate in the Supplement to his General Synopsis of Birds.

View Full Size Image

That image and the accompanying description provided the “type” for Johann Friedrich Gmelin, who gave the species its rather bland Linnaean label in 1788, Trochilus multicolor. Latham in turn adopted that name for his 1790 Index ornithologicus, where his brief description of the bird could be read to imply that he had seen further specimens, “in some of which there is a blue-green patch below the nape.”

George Shaw, in his Naturalist’s Miscellany the following year, was able to narrow the range of the Harlequin, “among the rarest species of its genus,” to South America, hardly a bold conjecture in the case of a large, colorful hummingbird. Shaw’s account was accompanied by an awkwardly executed plate by Frederick Nodder, painted, Shaw claims, from the British Museum specimen; the telltale turquoise panel on the upper back, however, reveals that Nodder based his work on Davies’s—or, more likely, on Latham’s description of Davies’s sketch.

View Full Size Image

The Harlequin Hummingbird was painted again, by Sydenham Edwards, for Louis Pierre Vieillot’s 1802 continuation of the Oiseaux dorés, a lavish work begun by Vieillot and his collaborator Jean-Baptiste Audebert, who had died in December 1800. Vieillot claims that Edwards had worked directly from the skin in the British Museum; whether that was true or not, a close look suggests that Edwards was quite familiar with Nodder’s plate, too, from which it differs in omitting the nape patch Latham had noticed in the Davies drawing, a mark Vieillot says is indicative of a “variety” of the true Harlequin.

View Full Size Image

Nearly fifty years after its discovery in a museum drawer, this hummingbird was as mysterious as ever. In 1829, René Primevère Lesson wrote of the oiseau-mouche arlequin that

this bird is known only from the description and figure published by the English ornithologist Latham. That figure, drawn by Sir Edwards, was reproduced by Mr. Vieillot on Plate 69 of his Oiseaux dorés, and we have been obliged to include it in order that we omit none of the species listed on the basis of specimens preserved in collections or known from accurate portraits.
View Full Size Image

But Lesson had his doubts:

At the same time, this drawing seems to pertain rather to one of the curve-billed hummingbirds, and seems to us to be imprecise; it is only with very great reservations that the species must be admitted to the table of extant straight-billed hummingbirds. It could be, too, that it depicts nothing more than a sunbird, which we suspect even more from the fact that no hummingbird normally displays a similar distribution of solid colors in its plumage.

In 1831, Lesson had his answer. In his Trochilidées, he reported that the colibri arlequin of the British Museum had been examined by a Mr. Stokes,

who writes to us that the bird that served as the type for Latham’s description and for the figure copied by Vieillot was the product of a falsification, which one discovered on dismantling the specimen preserved in the British Museum.

It is a measure of the uncertainty that still obtained in neotropical ornithology—and, perhaps, of the antagonisms that still lingered between French and British naturalists—that William Jardine, two years after the publication of the Trochilidées, could write that

It has been hinted that the specimen in the British Museum was a specimen made up from the feathers of different birds.

Lesson’s debunking (which Jardine cites) was far more than a hint. Jardine notes, however, that Latham, who would live into the year 1837, had been aware of the rumor. In a footnote to the 1822 edition of the General History, Latham writes that

It has been suggested to me, that this is no other than a bird made up by the ingenuity of some whimsical person, who has fabricated it from the feathers of others; but which, by every attention paid to it, I cannot detect.

Jardine included the bird in his own work

with the view of attracting the attention of British naturalists…. If there is a specimen in the British Museum, and a drawing in the possession of General Davis, corresponding and evidently done from an individual of the same species, there will be no doubt of its existence.


View Full Size Image


In preparing his great Monograph of the Trochilidae, John Gould was “at all times favoured … with both information and the loan of specimens” from the collections of the British Museum. Nowhere could he find a skin attesting to the existence of the Harlequin Hummingbird—Lesson’s Mr. Stokes most likely had felt no obligation to reassemble the composite hoax once it was revealed. In relying on Latham, Gould writes, Gmelin had described a new species based on

characters … taken from a plate which must have been drawn from imagination and not from any real specimen.

Indeed, of the 95 hummingbirds Latham included in the revision of his General History, Gould considered only about two-thirds “real species,” the other 30 or more, among them the Harlequin, all “so indefinitely described” as to be unassignable to any known bird.

It seems very unlikely that we will ever know who the ingenious and whimsical creator of Latham’s specimen was, or what bird was depicted in Thomas Davies’s equally mysterious drawing. What is entirely certain, though, is that this is not the only case in the history of “trochidology” where a bird turned out to be something else entirely than what its original discoverers thought or hoped.

View Full Size Image


head shot photo of a man in a brown sweater
Written by

Rick Wright leads Birds and Art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature tours. His most recent book is the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America. Follow Rick on Twitter: @birdernewjersey.