Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.

As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).

The Hummingbird Gallery

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About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.

16 Comments on “Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

  1. Beautiful, Jean. I still have a white breasted nuthatch in my freezer, that my granddaughters periodically remember and ask my take out so we can draw it again. We’ve measured and compared, and drawn again before putting it back in its zip locked bags in the freezer. Same with a flying squirrel and part of a chipmunk’s tail. Can’t locate those sketches at present.

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Yikes Cheryl– I don’t think I could go for keeping the flying squirrel or chipmunk tail! But my kids are not surprised to find birds next to the ice cream on occasion. Keep in mind that the Migratory Bird Act prohibits collecting without a permit. Best not to keep things for too long. Enjoy that nuthatch!

  2. Beautiful — and informative! We love our hummingbirds who stay all year round here in BC. Last winter was so cold their sugar water kept freezing and we feared for their survival, worried they’d might even break their beaks. Tough little creatures indeed!

    • Aren’t they incredibly tough and hardy– weathering big storms, big predators, and a host of other threats. You are fortunate to have a greater variety of HBs in the PNW.

  3. Pingback: Hummingbirds | incitexx

  4. They are amazing creatures, and I can imagine how nice it is to have one in your hand, to look very closely at every detail. I love the “Gone West” painting, for obvious reasons. We’ve been going up to Anacortes lately, and we may move up there next year. Meanwhile, we have a Hummingbird still coming to our feeder – brief forays, always a delight.

  5. Some years ago (before I started painting) I had two males arguing over territory and both slammed into my window. I was devastated to find one had died. But I did examine the one in my hand for several min. Before disposing of it. It was fascinating yet sad at the same time. To think that Audubon killed many of his subjects in order to study them. These tiny creatures are indeed incredible strong little birds!

  6. Exquisite drawings! I also found your comments about the positive aspects of having the dead bird right there before you so reminiscent of Audubon and others who intentionally killed birds to study them.

    • Thanks for spending time on my blog today. There is so much to learn when you can study birds up close. Anatomy and feather architecture among them. Shooting birds to paint them seem so foreign to us now, but I can understand Audubon’s passion and perseverance.

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