It’s late July and the Rufous Hummers are back. Feisty little devils, they are. Ready to pick a fight, just to have something to do. I sit on my porch swing in the early evening and watch the aerobatics, the war for the skies. It’s like standing on a burnt out London street, seeing the RAF take on the Luftwaffe. In this case, however, I can’t tell who’s on which side…it appears to be a free-for-all.
They’ve been bombarding me with their yearly visits for more than 25 years. I’m looking at genealogy here…a family history, as successive generations of hummingbirds make their way from Central America, to southeast Utah, to San Juan County, to my humble little cabin and the bright red feeders that make the visit worthwhile. I don’t think they come here for my sparkling personality and rapier wit.
I’m not an ornithologist and learned most of what I know about birds during my stint in the Park Service (I once provided the first known sighting of a long-billed curlew—not to be confused with a marbled godwit—at Arches National Park). But I read my bird books and keep an eye open at all times for my winged friends. As to the hummer, what amazes me, in addition to its size and its rapidly fluttering wings, is its migratory habits; these kids spend a good part of the year in Central America, where the weather is mild and the living is easy. Why they make this annual pilgrimage to North America is a mystery to me, but according to the literature, each February, millions of hummingbirds move north to the Yucatan Peninsula and then, after putting on as much weight as they can, make the long 24 hour flight across the Gulf to Texas and points north. By the time they reach land again, they will have lost almost half their body weight.
They pause to re-gain their strength and then they push on. There are studies that show hummingbirds will return year after year to the same area and even to the same feeder. And I can attest to that—for decades, I’ve spotted the season’s first hummingbirds on or around April 24. I see mostly Blackchins and Broadtails here. And for a few weeks, the numbers are relatively small. But it’s as if these are the advance guard; by late May, the hummers are here in force.
There are arguments for and against hummingbird feeders and what kind of ‘feed’ to provide; sometimes I don’t think I have the strength to face one more moral dilemma. But right or wrong, I provide an increasing number of feeders as the summer wears on, especially in drought years like this. I fill the feeders and I hang them on the hooks and I step back and watch…
Whenever I find the behavior of my own species too difficult to bear, and too complicated to understand, I consider my friends the hummers. During the course of a day, I’ve seen remarkable displays of cooperation one moment, and irrational territorial greed the next. One evening, I watched 16 birds share the perch and eight feeder holes. In pairs, I watched them work it out—one beak would go in while the other waited. Then it was the other’s turn. It was remarkable. Courtesy at its finest.
But it’s not always like that. One day, I found all the feeders empty but one, which was almost untouched. What was wrong with this one, I wondered. I saw a hummer approach it, eager to get a drink. Then from deep in the foliage of a nearby oak, another hummer drew a bead on the interloper and smashed him so hard, I could hear the sound of their two tiny bodies colliding. It was all about territory. This hummer had staked his claim and no one was going to use the feeder but him. But there was a problem— with his unbroken vigilance, he never had time to indulge in the feeder either. So it sat almost full and untouched. Nobody won and doesn’t that sound familiar?
In July—about now—the migrating Rufous show up, ready to pick more fights, and the world gets really crazy. In hot, dry years like this, I may have as many as 40 or 50 visitors. The noise alone is deafening. The Rufous ‘call’ includes, of course, the humming of those amazing wings, but it distinguishes itself from others by the brittle, metallic drone that is unique to them. Now I’m re-filling the feeders daily and when they run dry, they all hover in front of the windows, searching for their food attendant. They seem to know where their meals come from…
Do hummingbirds really sense my presence and understand the role I play in helping them through these hot dry summers? Are they smart enough to realize the good deed I’m trying to perform? Can a hummingbird be grateful?
Many years ago, still living in Kentucky on our farm, we kept feeders out for the local hummingbirds and, like now, I spent many a lazy afternoon watching them. One day I walked into the garage; we had left the door open and somehow a hummer had flown into the garage and up into the rafters and he couldn’t get out. He kept trying to fly upward and could not comprehend the big gaping garage door opening and the freedom that lay below. Finally, utterly exhausted, I saw him land on one of the garage door railings. I could actually see his little heart pounding.
I would swear he was watching me…what could I do? How could I help? Leaning against the wall was my old canoe paddle. I picked it up and walked slowly toward the tiny bird. He eyed me warily but didn’t move. Now directly below him, I ever so slowly raised the paddle, the flat wide edge pointing toward him. He kept watching the paddle. Finally, I had managed to move the blade directly in front of him, just a fraction of an inch from his exhausted little body. He looked at me and he looked at he paddle and he looked at me again. And then…he stepped onto the paddle’s flat edge. I slowly—at a snail’s pace—lowered the paddle, until finally, he saw the daylight in front of him and made his escape.
The next day, I was again on the porch, watching the hummers, and one bird flew within inches of my face and hovered for several long seconds. Was it my garage-escapee, coming back to say thanks? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to think so.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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