The animals on the cover of The Ruby Programming Language are Horned Sungem
hummingbirds (Heliactin bilophus). These small birds are native to South America,
living mainly in Brazil and Bolivia. They prefer dry, open habitats such as grasslands,
and they avoid dense or humid forests.
Hummingbirds have the fastest wingbeat of all birds, and the Horned Sungem is capable
of 90 wingbeats per second. (Contrast that with the vulture, the slowest of all birds,
capable of just 1 wingbeat per second.) Because hummingbirds are so fast and light,
they are able to hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings. They can also fly
backward (the only birds who can do so) in order to keep position as they drink nectar
from flowers. Their long, thin bills allow them to reach deep within blossoms. Fittingly,
the Portuguese word for hummingbird is beija-flor, or “the bird that kisses flowers.”
The English word, of course, comes from the hum made by its fast-moving wings.
The male Horned Sungem has tufts of red, blue, and gold feathers on either side of its
head. Its back is iridescent green, its throat and breast are black, and its belly is white.
It has a long, pointed tail. The female looks similar to the male but lacks the dramatic
crown pattern. Because of the hummingbird’s vibrant colors, early Spanish explorers
named it Joyas voladoras, or “flying jewel.”
There are many myths about hummingbirds. In Brazil, a black hummingbird is a sign
of a death in the family. The ancient Aztecs honored them, and priests used staffs
covered with their feathers to remove curses. The hummingbird is also a symbol of
resurrection, as Aztecs believed that dead warriors were reincarnated as these birds.
The Aztec god of the Sun and war, Huitzilopochtli, was represented as one; his name
means “Hummingbird from the south,” the south being the location of the spirit world.