Meditations on hummingbirds

By Kristen Lindquist | May 09, 2009


The hummingbird can reach speeds of over 30 mph, and is the only bird that can fly backward, a good strategic maneuver in air battles.

The story goes that when I was a very little girl, I caught a hummingbird. Every summer my grandmother would train nasturtiums to wind their way up a dilapidated rowboat overturned in the dooryard. Nasturtiums have fragile stems easy for a small child to pick, and my grandmother would allow me to pick my own bouquet for the house. I loved the spicy scent of the blooms and the wide range of extravagant colors: mango, red-orange, carrot orange, cream with red patches, crimson. And so did the hummingbirds, which were always zipping around as I picked.

One morning I noticed a fat baby hummingbird bumbling around among the blossoms. Unable to resist, I reached out, cupped the bird in my palms, and showed my grandparents what I had found. Thus a family legend was created. My grandparents are no longer with us, but whenever the subject of hummingbirds comes up—usually when the first returning bird appears in May—my mother tells that story again. As continually retold family stories go, I could have it a lot worse than to be known as the family hummingbird whisperer.

My grandmother hung hummingbird feeders all around her house. Looking back, I don’t know how she kept up with the demand for sugar water, because every summer several families of hummingbirds feuded all day long at the feeders, circling the house in a constant go-round of skirmishing. Anyone who thinks hummingbirds are delicate, gentle creatures has not spent any time watching their dinner behavior. These brilliant—and very territorial—avian demons fiercely defend “their” staked out feeders, diving on each other like miniature screeching helicopters.

Nothing sounds like a hummingbird. The tiny birds zip by so quickly that many times I know one is near only because I hear their buzzing wings and chattering squeaks. I’ve heard a recording of their song slowed down and was surprised to realize that it actually sounds like what we think of as “normal” birdsong.

But these hyperactive creatures speed it up, taking it up several notches acoustically. In flight they take it to another level, as well, beating their wings faster than the eye can perceive. The hummingbird can reach speeds of over 30 mph, and is the only bird that can fly backward, a good strategic maneuver in air battles. This speed is made possible by the highest metabolism (in flight) of almost any other animal, and thus a corresponding need for a lot of nectar—hence, the importance of defending the reliable food sources provided by feeders and flower beds.

The hummer also possesses remarkable hovering abilities. A hummingbird has hovered in front of my face, seemingly transfixed by its reflection in my glasses. Hummingbirds have buzzed around me like little surveillance planes when I was wearing a shade of red. When a hummingbird sees red, it doesn’t get bullish, it gets hungry. In my yard their favorite flower is the tall, scarlet bee balm, which I planted right in front of my kitchen window so as to watch the hummingbirds when they buzz in for a meal. They also like the hanging fuchsias that my grandmother called “dancing ladies”—the ones with stamens and pistils dangling like legs below gaudy pink and purple petal skirts. Sugar water in feeders, however, does not need to be red to attract hummers—and in fact, red dye contains chemicals and preservatives that may even be harmful to the birds.

One summer I decided to take on the challenge of photographing a hummingbird with my new camera, a cheap pocket Instamatic that took 110 film (this was way before digital). I sat by a feeder for hours, trying to get a shot in those few seconds when a bird was dipping its bill through the feeder’s plastic red flower for its dose of sugar water.

I was successful in relative terms—I eventually got a shot of a perched hummingbird, but given the equipment I was working with, it was nothing special. Still, in those long periods of waiting for the perfect Kodak moment, I observed that several birds seemed to be going back and forth from the big blue spruce in the front yard. Eventually I found a nest not much bigger than half an eggshell, seemingly made of spider webs and lichen, tucked amid the perfect protection of the spruce’s prickly boughs. I could only imagine the size of the chicks that once nestled there. By the time it can fly, the hummingbird fledgling puffed with baby down is puffier (and slower, as I had discovered when I caught one) than its more streamlined parents.

More than 20 hummingbird species may potentially be seen in the United States, but here in the East, only one species regularly makes its home—the ruby-throated hummingbird. The occasional western stray is becoming more and more common, however, probably a result of increased hummingbird feeding and gardening, as well as global climate change—both of which may affect fall migration patterns. The ruby-throat, like most hummingbird species, is a flashy, iridescent green, a sparkling emerald of a bird. The adult male sports a bright red throat, or gorget, that can look almost black until it catches the light just right—then, the brilliance of the color makes you catch your breath.

Being able to see more than one species of hummingbird is one of the thrills of bird watching out west. On my first visit to Arizona about 20 years ago I spent a month camping out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert not too far from the Colorado River. I was napping in the sun outside my tent one afternoon when I awoke to see a male black-chinned hummingbird hovering above my face. I’ll never forget the amazement I felt when its sparkling, deep purple throat caught the sunlight. That intimate moment of unexpected and unimaginable beauty has hung in my memory ever since. I felt like I had witnessed the near-mythic Green Flash of the tropical sunset.

In addition to the awe-inspiring quality of its plumage, our ruby-throated hummingbird also undertakes an incredible migration each spring and fall. This tiny creature, which normally weighs about .11 ounces, bulks up to over .2 ounces (the weight of about 4 paperclips!) before undertaking a nonstop flight over the Gulf of Mexico. Given the vagaries of weather and wind inherent in such a journey, it’s no wonder that the average hummingbird lives only three to four years—which makes the return of these flying jewels each spring that much more of a miracle.
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