Jamaica is the perfect destination if you’re looking for sensational Caribbean birding. Considering the colorful nicknames bestowed upon just about every species on the island, Jamaicans truly love their birds. And of these birds, none is more beloved than the delightful Doctor Bird.
Doctor Bird is the name given to the fetching avian identified in field guides as the Red-billed Hummingbird (Trochilus polytmus) or less formally as swallow tail, streamer-tail, swallow-streamer, or scissors-tail. This endemic hummingbird enjoys great prestige in Jamaica as both the national bird and the logo of Air Jamaica aircraft. According to Dr. Rebecca Tortello, the bird’s odd nickname has a variety of likely origins:
…there are many stories that explain the naming of the Doctor Bird. One states that it is called doctor because its long black tail (of the adult male) resembles the long black tail coats doctors were known to wear in the past. Another explains that it is called doctor because it gives medicine to the plants when it lances the flowers with its long bill. Yet another explains that is because it is associated with tobacco, a ritual plant also used as medicine by Taino shamans.
The Jamaican Information Service highlights an even more potent yet peculiar title for the good doctor:
According to Frederic Cassidy the bird is an object of superstition. The Arawaks spread the belief that the bird had magical powers. They called it the ‘God bird’, believing it was the reincarnation of dead souls. This is manifested in a folk song which says: “Doctor Bud a cunny bud, hard bud fe dead”. (It is a clever bird which cannot be easily killed).
Visit our Black-billed Streamertail gallery for more photos of this gorgeous bird!
It’s amazing how much attention elongated retrices attract. As if these assorted aliases were not confusing enough, the Doctor Bird appears naturally in two different flavors. Most authorities split the swallow tail of Jamaica’s eastern end, the Black-billed Streamertail (Trochilus scitulus) from T. polytmus. Others consider the black-bill a subspecies of the red-billed bird. Predictably, many birders support the taxonomy that will gives them two lifers if fortunate enough to spot both birds (easy to do at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in Port Antonio!) Get me a Doctor Bird, stat!