Dances with hummingbirds

Our homemade hummingbird feeders attach at approximately waist level to the two-by-four railing that runs around our second story porch.   This puts the hummers down with us when they stop by for refreshers between bouts of very small game hunting.   Once they arrive mid-April or so, we wind into the lives of these brilliant dynamos to the point of familiarity.   That is, we share the porch space freely, with the hummers chasing past our heads or otherwise threading their paths through ours. It becomes something of a dance, we humans walking along the porch or in the garden, the hummingbirds dipping, weaving, zipping around us.   Except for unusually marked birds, like one albinous male black-chinned that drops by, I can’t identify individuals.   Some of them, however, have no trouble recognizing me.

Two afternoons ago, I stepped out onto the porch to see a male black-chinned bird flying anxiously feeder-to-feeder, all of which stood obviously empty.   Upon my appearance, he pivoted mid-air and zoomed half the length of the porch—about twenty feet—up to my face, so close I went cross-eyed looking at him.   There he came to a sudden, mid-air stop, forcing me to blink.   After a three-second hover four or five inches from my eyes, he turned and buzzed back to the nectar cups, indicating on them with his bill.  

It took some nerve on my part not to flinch, bat him away, or recoil reflexively.    Over the last four years, I’ve learned to trust hummers’ flying skills and to appreciate their gift for interspecies communication, but sometimes their less-than-subtle approach still shakes me a bit.   With a drop or two of adrenaline kicking my heart, I said, €œAll right, all right, € went back into the house, and mixed a fresh batch of sugar water, which I dutifully divided between the four cups.

A few days earlier I performed this replenishing ritual with a bold, black-chinned male hovering around my hands.   The first step is to clean and rinse out the open cups with hot water.   Along with the jar containing the sugar water mixture, I set aside the wash water then tap the feeders to warn ants gorging on remains that the apocalypse is at hand.   Most run for it, I shake out those that don’t then set about washing the cups.   That clever male, possibly the same one that accosted me a few days later, understands that if the sugar water isn’t in the cups when I’m there, that means it’s in one of the two containers sitting on the railing.   He hovered anxiously, occasionally trying to taste the hot water, but I shooed him off to prevent his burning  that  long, thread-like tongue.   The last time I shooed him, I clipped him.   Alarmed that I’d actually touched the bird, I watched for signs of insult or injury.     He appeared unfazed, urging me to be done with my business so he could get on with his.   Surprised by his lack of concern, I remembered: these guys body-slam each other mid-air all the time.   What’s one soft finger flick to him?

Until we put up those feeders, I had no inkling that black-chinned hummingbirds had an aptitude for close human interaction.   Hummers always seemed skittish to me, half-immersed in another dimension of being, an accelerated world co-existent with mine that sometimes slowed down to intersect with mine but  that withdrew beyond reach in a flash.

When we moved to southern Utah, we put up household hummingbird feeders for the first time and marveled at how the birds swarmed to them, sometimes as many as two-dozen at a time.   My kids learned that if they sat or stood very still by the feeders and placed a finger along a cup’s edge, the birds would perch there as they dipped into the sugar water.   After that, it didn’t take the hummers long to begin pestering when the cups were drained, flying up to us when we stepped onto the porch, hovering just off our shoulders when we walked in the garden.   When we were in the yard, they would even fly down to us from the feeders, and, once they had our attention, swoop back up, alerting us to their need.   In these ways, the birds began braiding their ways into ours, winding deeply into our souls.

Commonly, three species of hummingbirds visit our feeders: the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) which arrives the earliest and stays the longest; the broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), a beautiful bird that makes a bell- or cricket-like trill as it flies; and the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), the most aggressive of the three, the males of which species  show flashy, copper-colored feathers and iridescent orange gorgets.   In the spring, these three species arrive in that order, with the rufouses showing up in June.   The black-chinned hummers are not only the most populous of these three species of Trochilidae but also the most human-tolerant.   The broad-tails will approach gingerly if we hold very still, but the rufouses prefer not to have to look on us at all if they can avoid it.

That first year we lived here we were surprised to find at the feeders robin-sized yellow-orange birds with white-striped black wings, and sporting, as my kids put it, black goatees and sunglasses.   We identified them as Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii),  an orchard bird that I’m guessing observes where hummingbirds flock to locate the good stuff.   The orioles remain constant patrons, showing up in the area slightly after the black-chins arrive.   They don’t like the ants and  with their  beaks flick them off feeders.   This year another oriole showed up, the Scott’s oriole  (Icterus parisorum).   He upset the feeder community with his possessive attitude.   A pair of  house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) stops to drink several times daily, the female chittering the whole time in the lyrical language these birds speak.   Though we can’t get as close to them as we do the hummingbirds, the Bullock’s orioles and the finches have become similarly human-tolerant.   I can carry on a phone conversation  within eight feet of the orioles and they’ll continue drinking, keeping an wary eye on me. The finches will come to the feeders while I’m sitting directly across from them.   If I move much, they choose the better part of valor.

As I learn better how to interact with other species, I recall often something Barre Toelken says about Euro-Americans and Native Americans in his book, The Anguish of Snails:

€¦since we have pushed ourselves into the Native consciousness for the past five hundred years, much of the traditional art is already addressed to us, aimed at us, and performed in front of us (in many cases because of us).   It reflects our presence as well as tribal consciousness.   So our considerations are not just another charitable exercise in understanding €œthe other € but an attempt to recognize our own presence in the picture, a picture that, despite this ironic inclusiveness, is nonetheless constructed and understood from a different set of assumptions than our own (38-39).

We could say something similar about human relationships with animals, domestic and wild.   Swap the word €œanimal € for €œNative € (though €œnative € works for animals as well as for indigenous peoples) and substitute €œthousands of years € for €œfive hundred years, € switch €œbehavior € with €œtraditional art, € and I think that first line would remark well on the nature of and potential for our involvement with animals as well as serve as a statement about our current dilemmas of relation with them.   As with the Euro-American stance toward Native Americans, human efforts to preserve or allow for the presence of other species needs to be more than a €œcharitable exercise in understanding € Other—which, regardless of its seeming  a charitable stance, is still just the usual human tendency to objectify and separate out the €œnot us, € even if benignly.   To act well toward Other, we need to be able to imagine ourselves in relation with that other, not acting from a stance outside the realm of shared community.     The latter approach is not approach at all but almost always proves to be a managerial and manipulative  position  assuming control rather than a dance of life.   Also, as Toelken remarks, it’s important to consider how any relation might be constructed and understood from a perspective sharply different from one’s own and pay attention to what arises.   Animals will tell us just about anything we want to know, if we teach our eyes to see and ears to hear.

I’ve mentioned this before, but since that first year of close interaction with the hummers, my son, now nineteen, and my daughter, now twelve, have wakened late March mornings for the past three years and walked out of their bedrooms with these words: €œI dreamed the hummingbirds had returned. €   They speak these words as the birds turn their minds toward working their ways back to our area from Mexico and Central America.   These dreams have become a rite of spring, the awakening of consciousness to the impending arrival of some Other, now no longer strange, but a willing bond of life to life.   That bond is never what we think it is—it is always more.   Be that “Other” animal or person, misunderstanding is inevitable, but rather than pointing up the futility of  reaching accord,  misunderstanding lights up the depths of possibility. The longer the dance, the deeper the meeting.

6 thoughts on “Dances with hummingbirds”

  1. We witness the annual return of hummingbirds to Snail Hollow each spring. It is one of the signs of the season.

    Of particular interest is the peculiar behavior of male birds, I believe of the Rufous genus. They thrum their wings loudly in a threat display, and show other aggressive behavior. Also, their flight patterns describe a peculiar ¨Y ¨ shape in the air during courtship and mating rituals. Puzzling to watch this flight behavior. The tiny birds must exert themselves so greatly, it is a wonder their wings are not worn to tatters.

    How much nicer is it to look back on courtship and romance in my own life, fondly reminisce, roll over and fall asleep. The biological imperative no longer drives me so, and I have a lot of time for peaceful reflection and tranquillity.

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  2. Isn’t that return wondrous, Jim? Those tiny bodies, weighing almost nothing, pitting themselves against wind, weather, distance, predators, to return to traditional summer nesting grounds. It goes down in my book as “epic”.

    These creatures exert a powerful influence on me. I love serving them.

    Boy, I envy you your sleep. I was up till three last night with my daughter.

    Does she count as a biological imperative? Feels that way.

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  3. Patricia,

    Perpetuation of our race is the biological imperative so many of us slavishly serve. Alas, sometimes ungrateful master it is, and many members of our race have behaved in a manner that might have made little sense otherwise.

    I am not without concerns for my own. My sons are a constant worry to me. Just that they are of age that they are responsible, and don ´t pay much attention to my great wit and wisdom– if they were ever so inclined– regardless.

    The hummingbirds have it easy.

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