In the midst of a global pandemic, medical professionals have been heralded as heroes, with some even rising to the status of pop culture icons – even as some supposedly advanced nations have been plummeting into the depths of anti-science superstition lately. But one nation that bestows physicians with the respect they deserve is Jamaica, where the national bird is a hummingbird known as the “doctor bird” – the Red-billed Streamerbird (Trochilus polytmus). I can think of no higher honor.

Aïthurus polytmus, a family of Red-billed Streamerbirds depicted in a print dated between 1820 and 1860 from the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam.

It’s uncertain how the endemic Red-billed Streamerbird acquired its unusual colloquial sobriquet. Adult male “doctor birds” boast an impressive pair of black rectrices that form long, streaming “swallowtails” that far exceed the length of their bodies otherwise. It’s sometimes said that these long, dark feathers resemble the tails of a Victorian doctor’s knee-length frockcoat, with the bird’s black cap – which it can raise into a crest – completing the old-fashioned medical look as a top hat of sorts.

An adult male “Doctor Bird”, as depicted in Illustrations of the Birds of Jamaica by Phillip Henry Gosse (1849).

Others believe the Red-billed Streamerbird’s eponymous bill resembles a doctor’s lancet – perhaps one stained crimson with blood – which it uses to pierce nectar-rich flowers with surgical precision.

Whatever the origin of its name, the “doctor bird” has long held an important place in the identity and folklore of Jamaica. The indigenous Arawaks of the island reputedly called the hummingbird the “God bird” and believed they were spirits of the reincarnated dead. Superstitions about the Red-tailed Streamerbird’s supernatural powers continue today and it’s considered bad luck to kill one. Which is no easy feat if the words to an old Jamaican folk song are to be believed: “Doctor Bud a cunny bud, hard bud fi dead” (“The Doctor Bird is a clever bird that cannot be easily killed”).

Doctor bud a cunny bud

Hard bud fi dead

Lick ‘im down him get up

Hard bud fi dead

Shoot ‘im down ‘im fly away

Hard bud fi dead

Doctor bud a cunny bud,

Build ‘im nest a low limb

Hard bud fi dead

When ‘im biling dun

Wah bed fi lay down

Wah bed fi lay down

Besides the Red-billed Streamerbird, Jamaica is also famous for reggae, Red Stripe, and rum. While Red Stripe is Jamaica’s most famous beer, there’s no doubt that rum is the true national drink, as it is in so many Caribbean nations. So, what better mascot for a bottle of Jamaican rum than the Red-billed Streamerbird, the national bird?

Aiturus Polytmus from Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches, ou, Colibris constituant la famille des trochilidés (1877) by Louis Victor Bevalet.

Well, even though it’s blended in Detroit, Michigan, Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum from Two James Spirits gives us just that. Located in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood Corktown, Two James goes to great lengths to import genuine pot still Jamaican rums to its Motor City facility, where they’re blended, then finished in Muscatel barriques. It’s a remarkably international effort to produce a spirit that conveys such singular Jamaican pride, with a lovingly antiqued label that showcases a colorful depiction of the famous “doctor bird”.

Traditional pot distillation is more expensive and less efficient than more modern methods, but it yields a decidedly full-bodied rum with rich, bold flavors. These qualities are very much in evidence Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum, whose flavors may very well be a revelation to those used to lighter rums for tropical summer cocktails. Made with Jamaican sugar cane and bottled at a very potent 100 proof (50 percent alcohol by volume), this golden-hued rum is unabashedly fruity, with aromas of ripe banana, lemon peel, cooked pineapple, and sweet butterscotch in the pungent bouquet, followed up by some spicy, woody notes. The palate is rich and oily, with caramel and coconut, culminating in a surprisingly dry finish.

As we race toward winter and the end of 2020, many of us in more northerly climes will begin to take down our hummingbird feeders for the year, giving up hope once again of attracting some forlorn, late-season rarity that failed to find that life-saving sugar water we so thoughtfully hung in our backyards well into November. Well, after you’ve poured that sugar water down the drain, I recommend searching out a bottle of Doctor Bird – a very different kind of sugar water – as a consolation to get you through what might be a very long winter.

Good birding and happy drinking!

Two James Spirits: Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum

Four out of five feathers (Excellent)

Written by Tristan Lowery
Tristan Lowery’s busy homebrewing schedule took a hit in 2010 when he discovered birding and found that scanning the waterfowl at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on a frigid midwinter morning could be just as much fun as standing over a steaming mash tun in a sweltering Queens apartment in August. While his growing commitment to birding has undeniably diminished his brewing output of ales - fine and otherwise - Tristan finds that birding still affords him plenty of excuses to at least keep drinking beer, especially when celebrating life birds, lamenting unsuccessful chases, and capping off an exhausting Big Day or Christmas Bird Count. After leaving behind a hectic cooking career in New York City’s fine-dining scene, Tristan moved inland to the New York's Capital District, where the relative abundance of Pileated Woodpeckers almost makes up for the fact that he’s only seen a single Sanderling in Albany County ever. When he isn’t birding his local patches in urban Albany, Tristan works in energy regulation for the State of New York.