Hispaniolan Emerald (Chlorostilbon swainsonii)

Called glittering fragments of the rainbow and jewels of the world, for their radiant plumage, akin to precious gems such as sapphire, ruby – or in our case, an emerald. Hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) are found only in the Western Hemisphere. Distributed from Canada to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, the Aztecs worshipped as their god of war, Huitzilopotchtli (meaning ‘southern hummingbird’), and they believed that fallen warriors were reincarnated as hummingbirds. This group of tiny birds, with long, narrow bills and tubular tongues, specializes in feeding on the nectar of flowers. Hummingbirds depend critically on plants for their food, and plants depend on hummingbirds for reproduction, so it is hardly surprising that they have often influenced each others’ evolution. This coevolution has resulted in some hummingbird bills closely matching the shape and size of certain flowers. This arrangement benefits hummingbirds when it allows them to out-compete insects and other birds that lack the right equipment. It serves the plants because the birds deliver pollen more reliably when they specialize on flowers of fewer species. Of the 18 species of hummingbirds found in the Caribbean, three reside on the island of Hispaniola.

Among these, we find that “iridescent jewel”, our endemic Hispaniolan emerald. It is slightly smaller than the Antillean mango (Anthracothorax dominicus) and much larger than the diminutive Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima). As is typical, the plumage of the male is more striking than that of the female. The male’s body is dark green with bronze iridescence, while the metallic throat feathers and black chest patch are more darkly iridescent. The female has grayish undersides, a pale lower mandible and a conspicuous white patch behind the eye. The bill of the Hispaniolan Emerald is straight, of medium length, and black, with a pinkish-orange lower mandible in the male. The tail is forked.

LC Least concern

Conservation status

The emerald hummingbird lives in montane broadleaf forests, as well as in lowland karst regions of Hispaniola. This bird can be detected by the insect-like “buzz” of its rapid flight and by its vibrant metallic tic-tic-tic call. It is often found visiting red or pink flowers, such as the tubular Fuchsia of montane forests. In pine forests, the Emerald is particularly partial to heath shrubs (Ericaceae) of the genus Lyonia, which it defends aggressively within its territory. The breeding period is usually between January and August. Its parental care has been described as a typical case of machismo, as the female builds the nest and is the main caregiver for the hatchlings. When constructing their beautiful cup-shaped nest, they weave together bits of leaves, twigs, lichen, moss, and feathers, and use spider silk to bind them all together. Interestingly, this nest material is sometimes used in the Dominican Republic to combat ear infections.

"What a pity that most of these jewels live in jungles or mountains so dense that it is difficult for an ordinary person to know them well!" Anaballe Stockton de Dod
“Of all the numerous groups into which the birds are divided there is none other so numerous in species, so varied in form, so brilliant in plumage, and so different from all others in their way of life.” Robert Ridgway

Although this species has undoubtedly been impacted by the loss of moist forests throughout the twentieth century, it is still relatively abundant in some wooded areas, and may be found in highland cacao and coffee plantations. Dominican farmers have a great appreciation for hummingbirds which they see as beautifully delicate, as well as beneficial to their crops. Their seemingly constant flight has become the source of various common local folktales in which the hummingbird would rather die than touch the ground, or even that the world would end if the hummingbird ever touches the ground. This is yet another reason to ensure these beautiful birds and their habitat are preserved for many generations to come!