A beautiful hummingbird, thought extinct, is found alive

March 19, 2015 • 12:35 pm

Reader Lou Jost told me that a very rare hummingbird, the Blue-Bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus), thought to be extinct since 1946, has just been rediscovered in its very restricted habitat—the páramo in the Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia. It’s a beautiful creature, and the authors who discovered and described the finding (reference below, no link), took the first ever picture of this bird alive (all other photos are apparently of dead specimens).

According to Wikipedia, the bird is known from only 62 museum specimens and was last seen alive 69 years ago; but I noted that the entry has been quickly updated to reflect the rediscovery (despite Greg’s beefing, Wikipedia is good for some things!):

Surveys during 1999-2003 failed to detect the species. A brief survey in February 2007 and December 2011 failed to detect the species but survey efforts have not yet been sufficient to list this species as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct). In March 2015, the blue-bearded helmetcrest was rediscovered by researchers from the foundation ProAves while documenting fires set by local farmers that now threaten the species.

This February, Carlos Julio Rojas and Christian Vasquez were inspecting the Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevade de Santa Marta, concerned about fires that the locals had set to create pasture as well as about pigs that had been allowed to roam free in the fragile habitat. On their trip, they saw the bird. From the paper:

At 11:00 AM on 4 March 2015, during surveys of fires in high elevations (3,930 m elevation) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta some 14 hours by foot above ProAves’ reserve, CJS saw a small bird move quickly past him and perch on a bush nearby. He took a quick photograph of it before it flew off. The photograph on the camera screen revealed the striking plumage of the long-lost Blue-bearded Helmetcrest.

That picture is below, along with the proud caption, “First ever photographs in life of the spectacular Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus).” Look at that crest and blue beard—what a beaut!

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.21.38 PM

I can’t find any other photographs (or even drawings) of the species on the Internet.

Here’s a bit of description from the paper, in which you can sense the discoverers’ excitement (my emphasis):

Collar & Salaman (2013) illustrated specimens of all species in the genus and analysed plumage differences. They considered O. cyanolaemus uniquely to possess a (narrowly white-bordered) glittering purplish-blue beard, dull greenish sheen on the crown-sides, brown-and-whitish mottled underparts, a white undertail except for dark distal edges and central rectrices and a relatively short crest. All these features are clearly visible from the photographs presented here. The photographs presented here clearly match those of O. cyanolaemus specimens in Collar & Salaman (2013). Blue-bearded Helmetcrest is a highly distinctive species in its plumage and no other species in this genus is expected at the observation locality high in the Santa Marta mountains. There can be no doubt as to the identification based on the photographs presented, and that this long-lost species has finally been found.

Here’s the same individual in another place. They saw a total of three birds.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 1.21.53 PM

This species is a long way from safety. It’s endemic to a small patch of habitat that is under siege from the locals, who set fires to provide pasture for their livestock. Although the park is given the highest level of protection possible in Colombia, that protection also allows “indigenous peoples to carry on their livelihoods.” All the researchers can suggest is to educate the locals and restore the páramo where the bird lives if those locals agree to stop grazing. But really, how easy can it be to tell people to stop raising their animals so that a rare hummingbird could survive?


Julio Rojas, Caros, and C. Vasquez. 2015. Rediscovery of the Blue-beareded Helmetcrest Oxypogon cyanolaemus, a hummingbird lost for almost 70 years. Conservacón Colombiana 22: 4-7


48 thoughts on “A beautiful hummingbird, thought extinct, is found alive

  1. “But really, how easy can it be to tell people to stop raising their animals so that a rare hummingbird could survive?”

    It is about as easy as telling the people that on Tuesday, the army will behere and drive you all down to the low lands where you will find your new livestock, alligators.

    While there is some intrinsic value in the genetics of the bird, there is no intrinsic value in the genetics of the people.

    1. That’s wrong, and bound to backfire. This group of indigenous people (the Kogi)are genetically, culturally, and linguistically very distinct. Forced resettlements are a sure way to make every indigenous and colonist group in Colombia hate environmentalists. Probably also would lead to the groups killing any other rare species that might attract conservation interest.

      Conservation has to be done with the cooperation of the local people. Ironically, this particular tribe is famous among New Agers as spokespersons for Mother Earth, and films have been made about them. These fawning stories borrow from the “Noble Savage” myth and New Age ecological philosophy and have little relation to reality. I note that the Wikipedia article on these people says “The Kogi people live largely in peace with their environment”!!!!!

      1. Then it’s too bad they are (apparently) so isolated, or at least hard to reach. Elsewise they’d certainly be canny enough to play up that image for tourist traffic, thus gaining an economic reason to value the bird.

          1. However there is also the problem of eco tourism causing damage too. Too many people tramping through, talking, eating, discarding trash and snapping pictures. The locals and the wild life just might not like that. One has to work for balance and preservation. Sometimes exploitation is the wrong strategy.

            1. We have to weigh the risks and benefits of each alternative. I agree that ecotourism can be destructive to nature and to cultures.

              With regard to its impact on nature in this case, compare the damage that might be done by tourism to the damage done by burning every living thing and running pigs. I think ecotourism wins by a mile over nearly every economically competitive alternative, in terms of having less impact.

              1. big worries about how ecotourism would alter the local economy of the people anyway, which may then alter the local environment even more so, regardless of what tourists would do directly to the environment. It’s not something that can be entered into lightly. Better perhaps is to attempt educate the locals (especially the kids) about the bird, appeal to their pride and/or traditions and talk about how good they’ve done in protecting the bird thus far (even if not totally true), and work to find ways to balance out their needs with whatever habitat needs the birds have. Not that its easy, but getting the locals on your side, playing up, rather than against, the insider/outsider idea, that THEY will be the ones protecting the bird from everyone else, just might work. I dunno, but that’s my two cents anyway.

                fingers crossed, and a captive breeding program wouldn’t hurt either, just in case…

  2. Wow.
    What a gorgeous bird! Such a marvel of evolution to our human eye.
    When a discovery of a species so beautiful and thought to be long gone occurs it powerfully brings home the great tragedy of all the worlds losses to human expansion over the planet. This is one lucky bird. For now.

  3. Just another example of, “The Tragedy of the Commons”: whenever land is made available to humans with little or no oversight (backed up by law, with swift and definite punishments for wrongdoing), the humans will ALWAYS eventually degrade it, each individual telling themselves, “Well, I’m just burning off a few acres; what harm could that do? My neighbor has gotten a few more pigs; I should do so, too, and make more money!” It’s worse when increasing populations mean that people who are locked into “subsistence” agriculture by poverty are forced to turn to the “wild” areas near them. In the case of the big corporations destroying millions of acres of rainforest for palm oil plantations, the motivation is mere greed.

  4. To take the first and only pictures of a species thought extinct for 69 years. How could you even hold the camera steady.

    1. I agree, although from the description it sounds as though the picture was taken before the bird had been identified. Perhaps just as well!

    2. I would have probably pissed myself, then try to take about a dozen photos before realizing I had the lens cap on, the remove the cap, bring the camera to my eye and then…the bird would fly off.

  5. What a beautiful hummy! Notice this hummingbird also has the white feathers around the eye area. I love the crest – like a hummingbird version of a cardinal!

    1. That little white, sort of triangular spot behind the eye is a feature of several hummers, across several genera. There’s a good close-up of one of those spots, on a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, about a third of the way down this page:


      (There’s a lot of other interesting hummer info & photos there as well.)

      1. Yeah, until i started photographing hummies, I thought those white feathers were the whites of their eyes! Then I noticed most hummingbirds have those white feathers.

    2. Random fact about “hummies”–I just learned from a Cuban friend that their word for hummingbird is “Zun-Zun” or “Zum-Zum”, and sometimes “zumzumcito” for the really tiny ones. Isn’t that adorable? Apparently it’s an onomatopoeic word from the original indigenous language of the island.

  6. Such a beautiful bird.

    But, they’ve only seen three of them, so they are not out of the woods yet (ducks head, flees rooms weaving erratically)…

  7. Short bill, unless it’s just the angle, and I wonder if it prefers an endangered food source? The fact sheets don’t mention too many specifics. Will search.

    Thanks, gorgeous bird.


    1. Since this species was recently split off from Oxypogon guerinii, it’s possible that much of the information available about that species might apply to the new find as well.

      To that extent there is this page on O. guerinii:


      And the brief note on its ecology there does indeed mention a special plant of interest:

      Present year-round in humid paramo with Espeletia vegetation between 3,000 m and 5,200 m. Breeding is closely related to the flowering of Espeletia and the relatively large nest is constructed from the fibres of plants of this genus. Often this is along riverbanks underneath overhanging structures near waterfalls; often reused for several years (del Hoyo et al. 1999).

      Now that this old species has become four, perhaps scientists will begin to look for ecological differences in addition to the morphological ones.

      1. The literature for this species mentions that the Espeletia which grows where it lives is itself endangered, so yes, Mike.

        There is a very isolated population of Espeletia in a remote part of the Llanganates mountains where I live in Ecuador. These are hundreds of miles from the nearest other population of Espeletia, and form an endemic subspecies. They’re the tallest Espeletia in the world, up to 9m tall. I’ve often wondered if there might be a tiny population of some unknown Oxypogon hummingbird waiting to be discovered here…..

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