Hummingbirds - Gould's last passion

One of John Gould's last great passions was for hummingbirds. At the time of his death in 1881 he had an amazing 5,378 hummingbirds in his personal collection.

Trochilidae hummingbirds

Trochilidae hummingbirds
Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Australian Museum Research Library

John Gould popularised hummingbirds during the Great Exhibition of 1851 (a spectacular display of the industry and culture of the British Empire) and through his publications. Gould's last major expedition was to North America with his son Charles in 1857 in pursuit of hummingbirds.

The pinnacle of Gould's hummingbird obsession was the capture of a live Ruby-throat:

'A Trochilus colubris captured for me by some friends in Washington immediately afterwards partook of some saccharine food that was presented to it, and in two hours it pumped the fluid out of a little bottle whenever I offered it; and in this way it lived with me a constant companion for several days travelling in a little, thin gauzy bag distended by a slender piece of whale bone and suspended to a button of my coat. It was only necessary for me to take the little bottle from my pocket to induce it to thrust its spiny bill through the gauze, protrude its lengthened tongue down the neck of the bottle, and pump up the fluid until it was satiated; it would then retire to the bottom of its little house, preen its wings and tail-feathers, and seem quite content.'

John Gould, Introduction to the Trochilidae 1861, p.12.

Hummingbird Craze

In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London at the Crystal Palace. Gould was wily enough to have an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds on display in the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park, a short distance from the Great Exhibition.

He took advantage of the crowds going to the Great Exhibition and charged his visitors six pence a time and made a profit of 800 pounds. Gould's exhibit attracted over 75,000 visitors.

On 10 June, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the hummingbird exhibition. The Queen observed:

'It is the most beautiful and complete collection ever seen, and it is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little Humming Birds, their variety, and extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.'

By the end of the century the hummingbird craze was peaking. Millions of birds became victims of the fashion craze:

  • in one week alone 400,000 skins were auctioned in 1888,
  • in one day 12,000 skins were sold in a single public sale in London,
  • one consignment from Brazil consisted of 3000 skins of ruby and topaz hummingbirds.

Ms Leone Lemmer
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