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On Migration

For the boreal fly-birds [hummingbirds] and their chroniclers, chill weather, and danger, had to be constantly held at bay. Father Le Jeune lamented having “found winter in summer; that is to say, in the month of May and a part of June, the winds and the fogs chilled us.” As early as the month of July, the fly-birds too intuited the possibility of cold. Having travelled so far to their northern breeding grounds, they didn’t linger. Theirs was a mere summer interlude.

Father Sagard remarks that many hummingbirds “come to our garden in Quebec when the flowers and the peas in it are in bloom,” whereas John Lambert notes more prosaically that “the hummingbird ... is often seen in Lower Canada during the summer.” Few of these early commentators pondered how or where the birds spent the less hospitable months of the year. Migration, the deliberate seasonal movement of animals from one habitat to another, was unknown as a concept until the early eighteenth century, and even then, not fully understood. Most thinkers imagined animals as fixed in a divinely ordained chain of being. That an animal might adapt to its environment, through migration or some other behavioural innovation, was beyond their purview.

Father Charlevoix, the editor of one of Europe’s premier scientific reviews, does allude to the fly-bird’s migration. The thought held little purchase for him. He says rather matter-of-factly: “These little Animals take Care to shun the first cold Weather, It is very probable, that they return towards Carolina; and it is assured that they are not there but in the Winter.” Charlevoix himself had navigated the Great Lakes by canoe, calculating latitudes and distances, and later travelled by pirogue as far as Louisiana. He got jaundice for his efforts.

From the rigours of his own transcontinental journey, Charlevoix might have wondered how a bird weighing only three grams, with a brain infinitesimally lighter, and no visible compass, had achieved the same. He didn’t. And yet he was neither incurious nor phlegmatic. (Canon Pierre Hazeur de L’Orme called him “very quick-tempered for an administrator.”) For Charlevoix, the corporeal attributes of the fly-bird concentrated feeling. Consult him about the fly-bird’s “pretty loud Humming ... much like that of a great Fly,” its nest “platted like a Basket," or its eggs about "the Bigness of a pea," and the pitch of the man is palpable.




Excerpts from What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations from the New World:

On Hibernation
On Migration