To Mock a Hummingbird

Hummingbird Hero a

WHEN A MAN GIVES UP STRONG DRINK, dangerous drugs, and women, he wants hummingbirds in his life. Oh don’t worry; I have no intention of giving up drugs and booze, and women gave me up long ago. I just needed a snappy lead to introduce my obsession with hummingbirds. Fascinating creatures. I knew of them by legend in my youth, but never saw a real honest-to-God hummingbird until I reached my fourth decade of of life. 

My first close encounter with real live hummingbirds occurred in a controlled environment, sometime during the early 90s. We were vacationing in Tucson, Arizona (as was our habit so many years ago), when the Director of Domestic Tranquility and I decided to pop into the Hummingbird Aviary at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. My knowledge of hummingbirds then was limited to whatever I had gleaned from brief descriptions and photographs in textbooks and encyclopedias. And I suppose I might have seen them on television, while watching…oh I don’t know...the Discovery Channel? I knew these birds were very small, could hover, and really liked nectar. But nothing could have prepared me for what I’d see in the aviary.

Nothing. I saw nothing…at first. The aviary contained plenty of shrubbery and small trees, and… What was that!? A bee? Where did it go? Where did it come from? Then another tiny phantom zipped by but came to an abrupt stop just a few feet away from me, to investigate a flower. There it was! Scouting a flower, utterly indifferent to my presence. The hummingbird wasn’t myth after all! 

I’d heard tell these birds were about the size of an adult’s little finger. Wrong. The hummingbird I saw was about the size of one of my pinkies halved. How could a flying vertebrate be so small? And what magical force allows it to fly like that? It hovered like a bee, darted side to side, backed up, ascended, descended...as if suspended by an invisible thread. The wings, a blur. Beating the air into submission while emitting a distinct “vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv” sound. Then it backed up, looked about, and shot off somewhere at lightening speed. My first hummingbird! And it didn’t disappoint.

Hummingbird4

Ruby-throated hummingbirds

You never forget your first. There would be others. The aviary, of course, was loaded with hummingbirds…several species common to the desert southwest, including broad-billed, black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, and Rufous hummingbirds. The thing is, they’re tiny…too tiny to be birds, too tiny for words. I was looking for “small” and missed “tiny.” After adjusting my perspective, I could see the aviary held an abundance of busy hummingbirds. Flying up, down, backwards, and nowhere with a level of precision that must be seen to be appreciated. And they’re gorgeous. I had to have one!

When we returned home, I decided to set up a hummingbird feeder to see if I could attract a few for patio-side amusement. We were living in New York at the time, and I was pretty sure I’d seen those peculiar feeders at my local Home Depot in Oyster Bay. So I drove to the store, managed to corner one of the clerks, and asked him where they kept the feeders.

“You want...a hummingbird feeder?

“Yup. And I’d like some nectar too.

“Seriously?”

“Of course. Why not?”

“Um, nothing. I mean, we carry that stuff…feeders, but…”

“Great. Where can I find them?”

“Hummingbirds?”

“No. Feeders. The hummingbirds will find me when they find my feeder.”

“Sure…of course they will. Okay. Well...I believe you’ll find our hummingbird feeders in aisle 20.”

“Got it…aisle 20.”

“You can’t miss them…left side, right next to the unicorn feeders.”

“Thanks.”

“Good luck, fellah."

No hummingbirds came to my feeder. Ever. Apparently hummingbird sightings on Long Island are limited to the Discovery Channel. After several weeks of carefully monitoring my feeder, I had to face facts. There would be no hummingbirds in my life. I would have to be happy with mourning doves and mockingbirds. But no mockingbird ever mimicked a hummingbird to my satisfaction. I decided the only place one should look for  hummingbirds in North America is the aviary at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I left the feeder hanging anyway…just in case. Eventually, the nectar turned nasty, and I just tossed the whole feeder. It was time to move on.

And move on I did. Many years later. To rural North Carolina. Online satellite images still show woods where our house now stands. Those trees were cleared at least three years ago. But where the back yard ends, the woods begin again, and they’re deep. It’s a different world here. We’re neighbors with quite a diversity of wildlife, certainly compared with Long Island. Coyotes, falcons, vultures, venomous snakes, foxes, plenty of white-tailed deer, and so on. I like that. I like to gaze at the flora and fauna from the comfort of our screened porch, where the mosquitos can’t get to me. 

Chimes

Hummingbird lure

A few weeks ago I was doing just that; taking in a bit of nature from the porch, when this tiny…phantom zipped around our porch from left to right and came to an abrupt stop just a couple feet away from me, to investigate a colorful set of hippie chimes the Director had hung by our porch entrance. Then I heard again that distinctive “vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv” sound. Ye gods!  A hummingbird! A tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. And I thought…how the hell did you get here all the way from Tucson, little guy?

He was paused, eyes level with mine, midway down the dangling baubles and beads…trying to make sense of the whole thing it seemed. Hummingbirds can distinguish, and are attracted to, the color red; and these chimes offer up many shades of brilliant red. This male was scrutinizing the gaily colored “jewels,” darting up, down, left, right, until he figured out…nope, no flowers here. Then he zipped sideways to the right of the chimes and glared at me through the screen...indignant, as if to ask “It pleases you to mock me, sir?!” Then he zipped off in the same direction he came from…in a huff, no doubt.

Over two years here at Sagamore Manor and I’d never seen a hummingbird. Nor had I heard any of my neighbors speak of hummingbirds. Oh sure, I’d seen hummingbird feeders in peoples’ yards around here. But I just thought…poor chumps. You fell for it too? It would be a cold day in Hell before I ever bought one of those feeders again. They attract more humans than hummingbirds.

This male was scrutinizing the gaily colored “jewels,” darting up, down, left, right, until he figured out…nope, no flowers here. Then he zipped sideways to the right of the chimes and glared at me through the screen...indignant, as if to ask “It pleases you to mock me, sir?!”

So now I’ve got two feeders, one on each side of the porch. Keeping them topped off with nectar is a delightful chore. Busy little ruby-throats zip back and forth from one feeder to the other, dipping their beaks into the flower-shaped feeding ports, taking a few sips, popping their heads back up again to check their surroundings, then back down for another sip, over and over. Until at last they’ve had enough and fly off. When heading back to the woods, they fly nap-of-the-earth, dropping low and away from the feeder, skimming over the grass until they pull into a steep climb and disappear into the trees. But not always. 

Hummingbirds are territorial, and they routinely chase each other away from the feeders. I’ve seen “swarms” of up to three birds at a time fluttering about the feeders, chirping warnings at each other, then scattering high and away over the house. It all happens in a flash. While they’re off somewhere, still fussing away at each other, another lone ruby-throat will usually take advantage of the moment and buzz in for a peaceful undisturbed snack. Each feeder has six “flowers,” so we can accommodate 12 hummingbirds at a time, but that won’t do, as the video demonstrates.

Hummingbirds snacking at Sagamore Manor

I can watch them for hours. It's better than television. Okay, I’d rather watch my clothes dryer than television, but…you know what I mean. I can watch them as much for their beauty as in wonder and amazement of their movement and physiology. A hovering hummingbird’s wings beat at roughly 50 times per second, a frequency that’s audible to human ears. That’s what puts the hum in hummingbird. And they’re incredibly swift in forward flight, able to exceed 34 mph. That level of performance comes at a cost.

A tremendous amount of energy is required to support the extreme metabolic demands of hovering and fast forward flight. Their little hearts chug away at over 1,000 beats per minute during daytime activity. To hold it all together they need to consume more than their own weight in nectar each day and must visit hundreds of flowers to accomplish that. Little wonder they’re competitive and territorial. Fact is, hummingbirds are always mere hours away from starving to death during the day, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight. We’re doing our part; the nectar never runs dry here at Sagamore Manor.

A hovering hummingbird’s wings beat at roughly 50 times per second, a frequency that’s audible to human ears. That’s what puts the hum in hummingbird. 

ISN'T it marvelous how the little things in life still have the power to force a smile, even when the big things in life seem to conspire against you? I think so. Especially since this has been an especially dreadful year for Americans, and shudder to think it’s barely half over as I write this. The academe has spun completely out of control, social divisiveness is at an all-time high, our electorate is a shambles. I haven’t seen this much anger, angst, and free-floating anxiety since the 60s. It’s hard to imagine how any intellectually honest person could deny that this country is far, far worse off than it was eight years ago. The change we got can’t possibly be the change that so many hoped for. And the future is bleak as well. We face at least four more years of incompetent, uninspiring, dangerous leadership. It’s frightening to think the only change we can hope for this time around must come in the form of a miracle. Well…these things just bum me out. 

You didn’t see that paragraph coming, did you? Streams of consciousness can meander. But not so in this case. I really do marvel at how little things, like the antics of these tiny hummingbirds, have the power to help me forget about it all for a moment or two. My weighty problems sort of pale sometimes when I’m reminded that these gorgeous little birds must spend the entirety of their waking moments struggling to avoid starvation. I might be amused, but they’re all business. Of course, their presence in my life doesn’t make weighty problems go away—which is why I shan’t be giving up strong drink and dangerous drugs—but they help. And I’m especially grateful that they came to me this year, at this time.

“My” hummingbirds are a pleasing distraction, and I’m happy that I can offer them more nectar than they’ll ever need in their lives. If only they understood that. Perhaps they would relax, and learn to play together a little better. Probably not, I suspect; they’re born scrappy. Anyway, in light of my stunning, unexpected success in attracting hummingbirds at last, I just might go for the unicorn feeder. Hey, you never know.

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