National Geographic : 2017 Jul
102 national geographic • July 2017 pursuit of the world’s smallest bird, we’ve come to the backyard of a flamingo pink house in Pal- pite, Cuba. Ornithologist Christopher Clark has a car full of gear to unload: cameras, sound equip- ment, a sheer cube-shaped cage. Within minutes of arriving this May morning, Clark is spinning around in circles. He’s trying to follow the path of a bullet with wings as it whizzes from one clump of orange fire bush blossoms to the next. When the hummingbird pauses to draw sugary fuel from the flowers, his wings continue to beat a grayish blur too fast for the human eye to resolve. Even by the Lilliputian standards of hum- mingbirds, Cuba’s bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is a midget—literally the smallest bird in the world. Its iridescent green body weighs a bit more than the average almond. Locally it’s known as zunzuncito—the little buzz-buzz, after the sound it makes—and is even smaller than its cousin the zunzun, or emerald hummingbird. What this bird lacks in size, he makes up for in enthusiasm when he spots a visitor in his ter- ritory. She’s a comely female, contained by the sheer cage that Clark brought and has placed on a corrugated metal roof. If the male notices this fe- male’s enclosure, it doesn’t dampen his ardor. He helicopters up from his perch on a branch, hovers in the air, and lets out a trill in her direction. He climbs higher, until he’s a pinprick against the cloudy sky. Then, like a roller coaster that’s reached its apex, he pitches forward and whooshes toward the ground. In an instant the daredevil is doing it all over again: climb, dive, and swoop. These plunges last a mere second. Then he van- ishes, and the only trace of his passage is the leaves trembling in his wake. Though I stared intently at the courtship show, I did not see it. Neither did Clark, but he did something better. He recorded the display with a high-speed camera For a study of male Cuba’s bee hummingbirds’ mating displays, scientists captured the birds to get body weight and wing measurements (above). This one stayed still on the scale because hummingbirds are temporarily disoriented when flipped on their backs—but within moments of being restored to their feet, they’re again zipping around. No birds were harmed in making these images. SOURCE: CHRISTOPHER CLARK, UC RIVERSIDE By Brendan Borrell Photographs by Anand Varma In VIDEO See video of these hummingbirds in motion at ngm.com/Jul2017.