Book Review: The Glitter in the Green

The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds
by Jon Dunn
Nonfiction/Science and Nature/Natural History
352 pages
Expected publication date: April 20, 2021 by Basic Books

Though they are tiny, hummingbirds are among the most fascinating of birds thanks to their colorful plumage and their singular flying skills. Their ability to hover in front of flowers is unmatched in the skies and their wings can beat up to hundreds of times per second, creating the humming sound that gives them their name. Some species have ranges that span thousands of miles, while others exist within in small ecological niches on a single island or across a few mountains. They have been part of the cultures of the Americas for millennia and have faced threats from collectors and fashionistas across the centuries. But while these beautiful birds are beloved of ornithologists and bird enthusiasts around the world, they are threatened across the board thanks to wildlife trafficking, habit destruction, invasive species, and climate change. We may love these birds, but they are in grave danger of disappearing forever.

In his new book, The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds, photographer and wildlife enthusiast Jon Dunn sets out from his home in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland on an epic journey that will take him from subarctic Alaska to the southern reaches of South America. His goal? To see as many hummingbird species as he can and learn about the birds, the cultural history that revolves around them, and what their future may entail. Along the way, he encounters other more dangerous animals such as bears and mountain lions, and has a run-in with the world’s most dangerous creature: angry humans. Dunn encounters wonderful people, too. Friendly people who give him good advice and who are willing to spend hours driving a random bird enthusiast into the wilderness so he can see a handful of hummingbirds, or who fell in love with hummingbirds themselves by sheer chance and then turned their homes into a refuge for these tiny, beautiful birds.

But The Glitter in the Green is more than just one man listing the countries he traveled to and the birds he saw there. Dunn delves into the history of the lands he visits as it pertains to hummingbirds. Along the Mexican border he sees a wildlife market where dead hummingbirds are sold for folk remedies and love potions. In central America, he describes how the hummingbirds were seen as fierce little warriors by the Aztecs, who associated them with war gods in spite of their small size. Farther along in his expedition, Dunn details the exploits of English naturalists and collectors who raced to find the strangest, rarest, or most beautiful hummingbirds– and then kill them so they could ship them back to their museums. There are accounts of made-up hummingbirds that ornithologists believed were real, and real hummingbirds that were thought to be made-up until they were spotted in the wild. There is a vast array of hummingbird species, and scientists are still trying to figure out how many there are and how they are related to each other. And the sad truth is that we may never know how many different kinds of hummingbirds exist– or have existed– because some populations are so small and so dependent on a tiny ecological zone that, once that zone is destroyed, we will never know that a particular little bird existed.

There is some hope for some species of hummingbirds, however. As awareness of them as a precious and lovable creature grows, and as ecotourism expands in countries like Colombia and Brazil, pockets of protected areas will grow. But whether those pockets will allow hummingbirds to thrive or even survive at all is up for debate, and in some regions, such as the tiny Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile, it is unlikely that the local hummingbirds will exist in another twenty years, no matter what lengths the local people will go to to help protect them. Dunn may revel in the beauty of a place or wax rhapsodic about the shimmering colors of hummingbird wings, but such descriptions of lovely places and wonderful people can’t quite balance out the elegiac parts. When he began his journey, Alaska’s forests were on fire; wildlife trafficking in Mexico was unabated; political unrest was threatening to destabilize Bolivia; a right-wing president was abandoning policies designed to protect indigenous people and hundreds of thousands of square miles of untouched rain forest in Brazil.

The Glitter in the Green is more than just a book about hummingbirds, attractive as they are. It’s a compelling and elegantly written cultural history, a travelogue, and a stark reminder that humanity has a complex relationship with the natural world, and that all too often, we end up destroying the things we say we love.

Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest opinion. This did not affect my opinion.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Glitter in the Green

  1. What a beautifully written review, one that leaves me wanting even more to read this book. I’m fascinated by the idea of hummingbirds being seen as these fierce little warriors by the Aztecs. I don’t know why but that’s not something I’d have expected, even though I’m used to birds feathers being used decoratively in many culture’s outfits. Were there many photographs included in the book? Thanks much for this fantastic review!

  2. Sounds like a very interesting read. I had no idea that the Aztecs associated them with war gods. The hummingbird is the national bird in Jamaica. I always thought it odd that I’d never seen one on the island until a couple years ago as an adult. I also saw one in my backyard here in the U.S. once. I was so amazed. I just stood at the kitchen window trying and failing to really look at its wings.

  3. They associated them with war and battle because a lot of hummingbirds are territorial, and even though they’re tiny, they’ll straight up attack other birds who try to feed at their places.

    I can’t remember if I’ve seen hummingbirds in the wild here or not. I’m sure I’ve seen them at the zoo, but not just out.

  4. Thanks! I have a hard time seeing them as little warriors, too, just because they’re so tiny. But I guess even little creatures can be fierce. Sadly, there were no photographs in the book. I’m not sure if it’s just because I had an egalley, or if the book has no pictures. I just Googled the birds when he gave extensive descriptions. They were beautiful!

  5. Thanks for such a thoughtful review of The Glitter in the Green. I’m really delighted to confirm that the final copies of the book – out now – do indeed have images of many of the hummingbirds in the text. I hope you enjoy them. My very best, J.

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