Trochilus Polytmus

Black-capped Humming-bird


This species, the type, according to modern systematists, of the Linnean genus Trochilus, is perhaps one of the oldest and best-known members of the entire family, a description of it being included in nearly every general work on Natural History, as will be seen on reference to the synonyms given above; but although the bird itself has been so long known, nothing whatever had been recorded of its habits and economy until the appearance of the very interesting and valuable account published by P. H. Gosse, Esq. in his ‘‘ Birds of Jamaica,” and from which I shall take the liberty of transcribing the more important particulars.

“This is the gem of Jamaican ornithology,” says Mr. Gosse 3 ‘its slender form, velvet crest, emerald bosom, and lengthened tail-plumes, render it one of the most elegant members of its truly brilliant family.” It ‘is a permanent resident in Jamaica, and is not uncommonly seen at all seasons and in all situations. It loves to frequent the margins of road-sides, where it sucks the blossoms of the trees, occasionally descending, however, to the low shrubs, and is abundant on the summit of the range of mountains known as the Bluefields ridge. Behind these peaks which are visible from the sea, at an elevation of about half a mile, there runs through the dense woods a narrow path, just passable for a horse, overrun with beautiful ferns of many graceful forms, and always damp and cool. No habitation occurs within several miles, and no cultivation, save the isolated provision-grounds of the negroes, which teem with enormous Arums; and these are hidden from view far up in the thick woods. The refreshing coolness of this road, its unbroken solitude, combined with the peculiarity and luxuriance of the vegetation, made it one of my favourite resorts. Not a tree, from the thickness of one’s wrist to the gigantic magnitude of the hoary fig and cotton tree, but is clothed with fantastic parasites; Begonias with waxen flowers, and ferns with hirsute stems climb up the trunks; enormous Bromedias spring from the greater forks, and fringe the horizontal limbs; various Orchideæ with matted roots and grotesque blossoms droop from every bough, and long lianes, like the cordage of a ship, depend from the loftiest branches, or stretch from tree to tree. Elegant tree-ferns and towering palms are numerous; here and there the wild plantain or Heliconia waves its long flag-like leaves from amidst the humbler bushes, and in the most obscure corners over some decaying log, nods the noble spike of a magnificent Limodorum. Nothing is flaunting or showy; all is solemn and subdued; but all is exquisitely beautiful. The smaller wood consists largely of the plant called Glass-eye berry, a Scrophularious shrub, the blossoms of which, though presenting little beauty in form or hue, are pre-eminently attractive to the Long-tailed Humming-bird. These bushes are at no part of the year out of blossom, the scarlet berries appearing at all seasons on the same stalk as the flowers, and here at any time one may with tolerable certainty calculate on finding these very lovely birds. But it is in March, April and May that they abound: I suppose I have sometimes seen not fewer than a hundred come successively to rifle the blossoms within the space of half as many yards in the course of a forenoon. They are, however, in no respect gregarious; though three or four may be at one moment hovering round the blossoms of the same bush, there is no association; each is governed by his individual preference, and each attends to his own affairs. It is worthy of remark, that males compose by far the greater portion of the individuals observed at this elevation, while very few females are seen there; whereas in the lowlands this sex outnumbers the other. In March a considerable number are found to be clad in the livery of the adult male, but without the long tail-feathers, while others possess them in various stages of development. These are, I have no doubt, males of the preceding season. It is also quite common to find one of these lengthened feathers much shorter than the other; and in their aérial encounters with each other a tail-feather is sometimes displaced. The whirring sound made by the rapid vibration of the wings of the male is more shrill than that produced by those of the female, and indicates the proximity of the bird before the eye has detected it. The male utters an almost incessant chirp, both while resting upon a twig and while feeding from the flowers. They do not invariably probe the flowers upon the wing, but may frequently be seen thus engaged when alighted and sitting with closed wings; and they often partially sustain themselves while feeding by clinging with the feet to a leaf with the wings expanded and vibrating.”…When perched, “ they usually sit in a nearly upright posture with the head thrown somewhat backwards, the beak pointing at a small angle above the horizon, the feet almost hidden by the body being brought into contact with the perch, the tail thrown somewhat forward under the belly, and the long feathers crossing each other near their middle.”

Mr. Gosse states, that they do not confine themselves to any particular season for nidification, but that he found the nests most numerous in June; while Mr. Hill considers the breeding season to be at its height in January. The situation of the nest too appears to be very various, Mr. Gosse having found one attached to the hanging fibre of the root of a tree which had entwined itself round the projecting points of an overhanging limestone rock in a deep and thickly wooded dell; another stuck on a twig of a sea-side grape-tree (Coccoloba), at about fifteen feet from the ground, the tree itself being so near to the water that some of the branches hung over it; another on a hanging twig of a black mangrove-tree, the twig passing perpendicularly through the side and out at the bottom; and another on a twig of a wild coffee-tree (Tetramerium odoratissimum). The nest is principally “composed of silk cotton very closely pressed, mixed with the still more glossy cotton of an Asclepias, particularly around the edge; the seed remaining attached to some of the filaments. On the outside the whole structure is quite covered with spiders’-web, crossed and recrossed in every direction, and made to adhere by some viscous substance, evidently applied after the web was placed, probably saliva. Little bits of pale green lichen, and fragments of thin laminated bark, are stuck here and there on the outside by means of the webs having been passed over them.” The whole forms “a very compact cup, 1\(\frac{3}{4}\) inch deep without, and 1 inch deep within; the sides about \(\frac{1}{4}\) inch thick, the inner margin a little overarching, so as to narrow the opening; the total diameter at the top 1\(\frac{1}{2}\) inch.” The eggs are of a long oval form, and of a pure white, save that when fresh the contents produce a reddish tinge, from the thinness of the shell; they are seven-twelfths of an inch long by four-twelfths of an inch broad. ‘The above, adds Mr. Gosse, is the usual “ form, dimensions, and materials of the nest. Variations, however, often occur from local causes: thus in one from a rocky situation only moss is used, and the base is prolonged to a point; one now before me is wholly composed of pure silk cotton bound profusely with the finest web, undistinguishable except on the closest examination; not a fragment of lichen mars the beautiful uniformity of its appearance; others are studded all over with lichens and have a peculiar rustic prettiness.” That the chief food of the Humming-bird consists of insects, we have abundant evidence from examination of the stomachs of many species; they are usually sought for in the deep flower-cups, but that they are also obtained by hawking in the air, we learn from Mr. Gosse, who states that he has distinctly seen ‘the minute flies in the air, which it pursued and caught, and heard repeatedly the snapping of the beak.”

It will be seen that I have drawn very largely from the rich store of observations recorded by Mr. Gosse, and much more might be extracted with advantage, particularly a long and most interesting account of the various attempts made by that gentleman at domesticating this very lovely species, for which, however, I must beg to refer the reader to his “Birds of Jamaica.”

The male has the crown of the head and the nape deep velvety black; upper surface green; wings purplish black; tail deep black, glossed with green at the base; throat, breast and belly lustrous emerald green; vent and under tail-coverts bluish black; irides black; bill coral-red, the tip black; feet brown.

Total length, 10 inches; bill, 1; wing, 2\(\frac{3}{4}\); tail, 7\(\frac{1}{4}\); tarsus, \(\frac{1}{4}\).

The female has all the upper surface green with a bronzy lustre, deepening into brown on the forehead; wings as in the male; two centre tail-feathers bronzy green, the remainder deep blue glossed with bronzy green on the basal portion of the external web, except the two outer feathers on each side which are deep blue largely tipped with white; under surface white, the tips of the feathers on the sides of the neck and flanks glossy green; irides dark brown; bill reddish brown, black at the edges and tip; feet brownish black.

Total length, 4\(\frac{1}{2}\) inches; bill, 1; wing, 2\(\frac{1}{4}\); tail, 1\(\frac{7}{8}\); tarsus, \(\frac{1}{4}\).

The Plate represents two adult males, a young male, a female, and a nest, all of the natural size.


  • Polytmus 1. Brown, Nat. Hist. of Jam., p. 475.
  • Falemellus, caudâ & septem unciarum, Klein, Av., p. 108. No. 17.
  • Long-tailed Black-cap Humming-bird, Edwards’s Birds, vol. i. pl. 34. p. 34.
  • Bourdonneur de Mangoe à longue queue, Albin, tom. iit. p. 20. pl. 49. fig. a.
  • Oiseau-mouche à longue queue noir, Sonn. Edit. de Buff. Hist. Nat., tom. xvii. p. 215.
  • Mellisuga Jamaicensis atricapilla, caudâ bifurcâ, Briss. Orn., tom. il. p. 729.
  • Mellivora avis maxima, Sloane, Jam., vol. ii. p. 309. t. 264. fig. 4.
  • Trochilus Polytmus, Linn. Syst. Nat. Edit. 10, tom. 1. p. 120.—Ib. Gmel. Edit., tom. 1. p. 186. —Ib. Turt. Edit., vol. i. p. 303.—Lath. Ind. Orn., tom. i. p. 302.—Vieill. Ois. Chant. des Amér., tom. ii. p. 71.—Jard. Nat. Lib. Humming Birds, vol. ii. p. 108. pl. 21.—Gray and Mitch. Gen. of Birds.—Gosse, Birds of Jamaica, p. 97.—Ib. Ill. Birds of Jam., pl. xix. —Vieill. Ency. Méth. Orn., part ii. p. 554.
  • Black-capped Humming-bird, Lath. Gen. Syn., vol. ii. p. 748.—Shaw, Ge, Zool., vol. vii. p. 281.—Lath. Gen. Hist., vol. iv. p. 296.
  • Colibri à tête noire, Vieill. Ois. Dor., tom. i. p. 121. pl. 67.
  • Ornismya cephalatra, Less. Ois. Mouch., p. 78. pl. 17.
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