The insect-bird with a thousand names

Chronicles of a librarian in Colombia (II)


It passes like an exhalation, almost without being seen. You have to try to follow it with your eyes, be lucky that it stops floating under the petals of a flower, and observe it carefully to understand that it is a bird. Its colors recall the rambunctious palette of an expressionist painter, all of it trapped inside a small, feathery flake that would fit loosely into the hollow of my fist if it were caught, and that threatens to fall apart at the slightest blow. I see it every day. And I’m never tired of following its almost acrobatic displays, its goings and comings, its twists and turns. Around here there are several species: with long or short beaks and tails, blood-red breasts, backs of an almost phosphorescent turquoise green… They hide in the bushes, and sometimes they seem to compete to see which one of them risks getting closer to the windows of my house, or to the door. In his first Memoria del fuego, Eduardo Galeano wrote about one of them:

At dawn it greets the sun. Night falls, and it still works. It goes buzzing from branch to branch, from flower to flower, swift and necessary as light. Sometimes it hesitates and remains motionless in the air, suspended; sometimes it flies backwards, like no one else can. Sometimes it is drunk, from drinking the honeys of the corollas so much. When flying, it shoots colored lightning bolts.

It brings the messages of the gods, becomes lightning to execute their revenges and blows the prophecies into the ears of the augurs. When a Guaraní child dies, it rescues his soul, which lies in the chalice of a flower, and carries it, in its long needle-like beak, to the Land without Evil. It has known that path since the beginning of time. Before the world was born, it already existed: it refreshed the First Father’s mouth with drops of dew and calmed his hunger with the nectar of flowers [1].

Quynza or quincha, they were called by the Muisca, that old people in whose mountains I live today. I call them colibríes. Hummingbirds. Although throughout my life I have heard them named in so many ways that I can no longer decide on any.

There where I was born, on the banks of the Río de la Plata, they are called picaflores. “Flower-pickers”. But in that area, they are usually nothing more than illustrations in a natural science book: the child I was only heard of hummingbirds, never saw one. They told us native legends at school: stories and narratives such as those rescued by Alfredo Mires [2], among many others. Many years later I saw my first hummingbird, nested in a gigantic monkey-fern that gave life to a patio in the province of Chaco, in the northeastern corner of Argentina. By then I already called them colibríes (a word, colibrí, which apparently does not come from the Caribbean or the Taíno, as many believe, but from the French), although in those hot lands they are usually known as pájaro mosca (“fly bird”) or as mainumby, their name in avá-ñe’é or Guaraní. My astonishment at seeing it was enormous, and I still remember the idiotic smile that lit up my face all that day. And the following ones.

I discovered that there were hummingbirds in the central mountains of the province of Córdoba, my home for years in the heart of Argentina. There, they used a word from the runasimi or Quechua language to name them: qinti. Or quenti. In the south of the country, by the Patagonian horizons, the Mapuche call them pinda or pinza. And they were called siwar in the central Andes — there, the musician I carry inside learned of the indigenous custom of putting stuffed hummingbirds inside the enormous Andean drums: apparently, the magic of those birds gave a special power to the rumbling of the instruments.

That magic of the hummingbirds is reflected — palely — in the many pages that they have motivated. An example is that of the Benedictine friar Martín Sarmiento, who did not see a hummingbird in his blessed life but who, collecting news from others in Madrid at the end of the 18th century, wrote about the fabulous birds:

To enhance the beauty of the painting or embroidery with feathers, Aldrovando points out the feathers of the tominejo bird in America. Everything that is said about this little bird is wonderful. They are little more than a bee, and Father Acosta, seeing them fly, thought they were bees or butterflies. Gonzalo de Oviedo called them mosquitoes. We weighed one of those little birds and, because it only weighed little more than a tomín (a third of dragma), they called it tominejo. Garcilaso (book VIII, chapter 19) deals with those tominejos, whom in Peru Indians call quenti. Clusio (on page 96 of his Exoticas) paints the tominejo, he says that the Brazilians call it ourissia, which means “ray of sunshine”, because when in the sun it shows a complex of all fine colors. Hernández (page 320) places six paintings of various tominejos and names it hoitzitzil in Mexican.

The moderns treat of the tominejo with the name colibrí. Monsieur Brison lists 6 species of hummingbird. He says that in the year 1753, while he was with Monsieur de Reaumur, a Frenchman came from America and gave him a female hummingbird in its own nest. Some have written that the hummingbird sings, but all agree that it is the smallest bird in the entire universe. That only feeds on the flowers of juice, honey and dew. That where there are flowers all year round, there they are kept all year round. Where not, it is cushioned for six months and revives for April. At that time it sticks its little beak, which is like a needle, in a tree, and there it hangs, as if dead, in imitation of flies. Its nibs are unmatched in their delicacy and variety of very fine colors, and they are used for a kind of painting with miniature nibs. I do not know if they have brought those tominejos to Spain [3].

The tominejos — who are still known that way in the Colombian highlands, although no one knows what a tomín is — continue to wander among the many plants that surround the house where I live. They skillfully dodge the stalking cats, enchant dogs, and never cease to amaze me, throwing flashes of color even in the middle of the fog of these mountains in Bogotá.

There they go. Perhaps, as the Mexica of Tenochtitlan used to say in a tradition collected by Fray Bernardino [4], they rush to inspect the flowers to gather the souls of the dead — sheltered among the petals — and take them to the western sky, the last abode of the fair ones. Its flight is, therefore, a promise.

[1] Eduardo Galeano (1991). Memoria del fuego. Vol. I. Los nacimientos. Madrid: Siglo XXI Editores.

[2] Alfredo Mires (2000). Así en las flores como en el fuego. Quito: Abya Yala.

[3] Martín Sarmiento (1772/2008). De historia natural y de todo género de erudición, vol. II. Santiago de Compostela: CSIC.

[4] Sahagún, Bernardino de (1585/1829). Historia General de las cosas de la Nueva España. México: Imprenta de Alejandro Valdés.



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