Status: Near threatened
Length: 2-2.4 in (5-6 cm)
Weight: 0.056-0.071 oz (1.6-2 g)
It’s now possible, if you have thousands of dollars to burn, to spend the night in the small villa in northern Jamaica, perched on a cliff and overlooking a private beach, where Ian Fleming wrote each of the novels for which he became famous. As something of an amateur birder, Fleming kept a copy of the authoritative work on local avifauna, Birds of the West Indies, at the estate, and when in 1952 he began writing the first of his books, Casino Royale, he turned to the exhaustive guide for inspiration. “It struck me,” he later wrote, “that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name” – the name of the book’s ornithologist author – “was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.”
Other than a protracted bachelordom lasting well into his fifties, the real Bond had little in common with his fictional counterpart. If anything, he was a lot like Fleming, born into a life of privilege and ease. Although he served officially as a member of the scientific staff at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, he held no advanced degrees and drew no salary. As one eulogist wrote of him, he was the last of a dying breed: the gentleman curator, driven by curiosity but sustained by old money.
It’s unlikely that Fleming, at his estate on Oracabessa Bay, ever saw many of the more than four hundred birds described in Bond’s book, and among the least likely visitors would have been the bee hummingbird, which rarely strays far from the orchids and bromeliads and flowering vines of its native Cuba. With a nest no bigger than a quarter and eggs no larger than peas, the zunzuncito, as it is also known, is the smallest bird in the world. It’s so tiny, in fact, that the tag Bond affixed to the only specimen I’ve seen looks a bit ludicrous, as though it were tough to tell which is the accouterment and which the accoutered.
Scale changes everything, of course. Reduce a bird to its minimum size and the largeness of the endeavor – the edifice of natural history itself – becomes either clearer or more absurd. Maybe it just emphasizes the dimensions of the stage on which it plays out, bird by bird by bird. Dwarfed by the curator’s hand in which it lies belly-up, the zunzuncito appears fragile, even precious, caught in the painful contradiction of our care.
There are no heroes in this story, much less villains in secret lairs. The plot is as formulaic and predictable as any Bond film, no matter the novelty of the setting. After a long drought, Cuba is reopening to vast wells of American money, and in the mountains to which Fidel Castro retreated after his failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, the bee hummingbird looks increasingly threatened. In the absence of any real duty or honor or valor, in the absence, too, of any true nefariousness, one can only hope it won’t become, like Bond before it, a dying breed.
from The Hater’s Guide to Birds, with illustrations by Annie Hagar.