Habitat destruction and sorcery, two threats to the earwig hummingbird

The earwig hummingbird, endangered due to the loss of the ecosystems it inhabits, forms a group of birds with a unique distribution in America. The strong spiritual charge they represent in Mexico, where more than 50 different species live, has become a threat to their conservation.

In the Mexican imagination, the visit of an earwig hummingbird is an auspicious sign. According to a belief inherited from pre-Hispanic civilizations, with their fleeting appearance and more than 80 wing beats against the air per second, these little birds carry the fleeting message of our dead.

In Mesoamerican culture, hummingbirds were associated with war and love.“Explains María del Coro Arizmendi, one of the greatest experts on these birds that inhabit the American continent, 330 species listed from Alaska to Chile. It is estimated that up to 58 of them are distributed in Mexico, of which 14 are endemic. But, as the ornithologist warns, “could be much more”.


Destruction and fragmentation of their habitat

Habitat destruction and fragmentation is currently one of the greatest threats to these very special animals, the smallest and most diverse group of birds. “According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are nine endangered species in our country, two endangered and six under special protection.“, underlines the biologist of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has studied hummingbirds for more than three decades and is the author of the most complete guide produced.

Known colloquially as suction cups, “They are extraordinary pollinators. More than 10,000 factories in North and South America depend on it.“, Arizmendi highlights these animals which, with their long awl-shaped beaks, pierce the flowers in a few seconds to extract food. “They are adapted to maintain flight while drinking nectar.», explains the expert.

To do this, these iridescent feathered birds, whose plumage varies from brown to shiny metallic depending on the brightness of the sun, fly back and forth, unfolding their small bodies up and down, vertically and horizontally, to conquer at will. the air environment, “impressive acrobatic ability also linked to courtship in some species“, underlines Juan Francisco Ornelas Rodríguez, researcher at the Institute of Ecology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Inecol) and another of the most eminent Mexican experts on hummingbirds.

To maintain such activity, they need a lot of energy, which is why they spend all their time eating nectar, their metabolism requires a constant dose of sugar.adds the ornithologist.

Earwig Hummingbird, Small but Warrior

Characterized by its small size – the smallest species does not exceed 2 and a half grams – the hummingbird is a terribly warlike animal. “Contrary to what most believe, they are not social, they do not walk in groups and they defend their territory like no other animal. They feed exclusively on nectar and need to eat all the time, they do not allow anyone to approach their flowers, which they defend so aggressively. This is why they are associated with war,” Arizmendi explains, quoting Huitzilopochtli, the Mexican god of war, the brave warrior who made his Mesoamerican people the most powerful of all, “whose name translates to left-handed hummingbird. .”.

Contrary to the strong symbolism that associates them with war, hummingbirds also represent love. According to the Mexica, these birds were born from Coatlicue, the goddess of fertility. “And I think it’s because of the biological function that they have: they dedicate their life to pollination, which is the sexual reproduction of flowering plants.“, explains the biologist of the UNAM.

While this “love actor” presents them as lucky charms, other aspects of their physiology connect them to the underworld. “To maintain their metabolism, which is very fast, hummingbirds spend the day eating all the time. They cannot go more than 10 minutes without food because they would run out of energy.“Says Arizmendi.

The hummingbird, between the world of the living and that of the dead

In climates where the ambient temperature drops significantly at night, such as Mexico City, many species enter a phase of torpor, a hibernation that they perform each night. “Just as bears lose their metabolism, hummingbirds drop their body temperature to 19°C. and maintain only minimal vital functions, such as breathing and heart rate“, points out the expert, for whom this biological characteristic was the one that gave rise to certain beliefs.

Most likely, our ancestors, who lived in jungles and forests, finding these birds at night like this, thought they were dead, because they remain stiff like mummies. But as soon as you put them in your hand, they warm up, when the sun warms them up, it’s like they revive and start flying. It is surely for this reason that they are believed to be beings who live between the world of the living and the dead, who transport their thoughts from one place to another.says Arizmendi. A belief that has made them victims of illegal trade.

Earwig Hummingbird as Santeria Merchandise

Years ago they sold them at the exit of various metros in Mexico City. A man gave them as a stuffed animal on a stick for Valentine’s Day, so that the boys would conquer the girls“, laments the ornithologist. Fortunately, this practice died out, but it evolved into what are now known as moorings, amulets made of healing herbs and extracts such as honey, a lock of hair, a maiden medallion, a photograph of the desired person and many other symbolic details which are attached with string to the dead bird to ward off love and manipulate affections.

These types of talismans are easily found in the legendary Mercado de Sonora, the largest bazaar of black magic in all of Latin America: labyrinthine corridors where remedies for discomfort or migraine are presented in small vials labeled natural oils, and diseases, be it cancer. or onebad air», Heals himself with potions and consults the astral charts, goes to shamans or prays to San Judas.

In this black market, denounced for years for animal abuse, black cats and roosters, and even goats, are sold for sacrifices at Santeria. “And lovesickness is cured by forging spells with hummingbirds“, quips Arizmendi, who was part of the complaint filed against this market thanks to an investigation originating in the United States, where the black market of Mexican hummingbirds arrived. “However, the practice of capturing them for love spells does not come from Mesoamerican cultures but from Cuban Santeria.“, nuances the specialist.

Illegal capture of hummingbirds

In 2009, researchers documented over 650 dead hummingbirds for sale at the Sonora market. The specimens had been caught with nets and slingshots. “At that time its price did not exceed 100 pesos (less than 5 euros)“, underlines the researcher, who regrets that the police raid only stopped the illegal trade for a short period. “Then they sold them“, precise.

According to another investigation in 2019, the value of these dead animals had risen to 150 pesos, endangering several of the hummingbirds in the capital, which is home to up to 17 species.

Although less and less, hummingbirds are still sold for esoteric purposes. “The government does nothing because it seems to them an unimportant issue, but it is a problem that must be solved with education,” Arizmendi laments. Although killing and sale is prohibited in Mexico and the law (NOM-059) grants strict protections to 20 species and subspecies of hummingbirds, there are no effective initiatives to stop their illegal trade.

And while some are at risk of extinction, like the earwig hummingbird, doricha eliza, endemic to Mexico, the bird Ornelas knows best, the same bird that, in the midst of pandemic confinement, peeked into the garden of his partner Fernando González-García. Unconcerned with legends that promise good luck, this biologist took the hummingbird’s visit as a professional prediction: “When he appeared in my house, I decided that I would devote myself to studying them“says the ornithologist, also a researcher at Inecol, who until then had been investigating another bird, the horned peacock, better known as the chachalaca.

More species than recorded

The earwig hummingbird is only distributed in a very small way in our country and has two populations separated by more than 800 kilometers. One is located in the north of the Yucatan peninsula, and lives among the mangroves, the other in the center of Veracruz, where it inhabits the dry lowland forests and the savannahs”, specifies the researcher. “It is suspected that they could be two different species“, he adds.

There are several hypotheses that these are different types of hummingbirds, but more studies are still needed.said Ornelas. “To see population differences, you study physical characters, but also genetic data, DNA sequences that indicate different rates of evolution.“, explains the ornithologist, for whom in Mexico “there could be many more species than those officially registered, as is the case with the hummingbird earwig”, points out the biologist.

Although there are officially 14 endemic hummingbirds in Mexico, there are probably as many as 24.agrees González-García. But there is a lack of studies, as well as population data of the various hummingbirds that are spread across the country. “Estimates are made, but they are not well quantified. If we compare the data from 30 years ago, we see that some populations have declined in the last decade, but we do not know for sure how many there are.concludes Ornelas.

The dangers that await the earwig hummingbird

And the dangers that threaten them every day are increasing: habitat destruction due to the development of tourism throughout Mexican territory,”land use changes for crops or burning for pasture for livestock, to build houses and parking lots“, denounces Gómez-Fernández. Along with grasslands and jungles turned into human settlements, feral cats also pose an imminent threat.

More spaces are urgently needed to serve as habitats for hummingbirds and involve the whole of society in their protection.“, underlines Arizmendi, who since 2014 has been promoting gardens as refuges for these pollinating birds, an initiative that is replicated in schools and public buildings. “Education is essential for their conservation, we must be able to convey how fascinating hummingbirds are, not as amulets, but when they fly freelyconcludes the ornithologist.



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