On Hummingbirds

Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. May, 1993. We've set up a hummingbird feeder for several weeks now, changing the sugar water every 3-4 days as instructed: our first try at attracting them. I'm sitting out on the back porch about 6 ' away from the hanging feeder when it happens---my first sighting. I want to shout and leap up but stay frozen in my chair, afraid that even the slightest head movement will make it fly away.

Later, several more visit, some darker, some lighter. After looking Ruby-throats up in Peterson's Guide, I conclude darker one is the male. The female makes occasional peeps as she feeds; the male (so far) seems silent. She also seems to take long, steady drinks; the male sips, darts up to check around, then sips again. But both will break off and zoom away at the slightest movement of something nearby.

I can't really see either bird's colors all that well (partial male red-green blindness on my part), especially the fabled ruby-red throat marking. My various bird books describe the colors in great detail, with much confidence. Some other hummers native to other continents have iridescent throats---how appropriate, for the hummer is to flight what iridescence is to color. I also suddenly realize that these detailed descriptions of the bird's markings must have been made using dead birds.

A bird announces itself with a quick movement in my peripheral vision, and by a sudden low vibrating sound as it speeds up its wingbeats even further to brake itself as it swoops into position before the feeder. The sound is a little like a bumblebee's, but deeper. It's not really a hum (so much for the accuracy of the bird's name) and not a buzz. It's more like a varied whirr, and it sounds differently depending on the speed and the wings' angle: braking for the feeder produces a deeper whirr than hovering or than accelerating away after feeding.

The birds seem both pugnacious and playful. Once when a female was feeding a male showed up (I don't know whether they were mates or not). They suddenly began swooping around each other and then zoomed away in different directions, dived toward each other in a near-miss, then flew off. Whew!

I realize I've never really looked at a hummingbird before; what I think I "know" about hummingbirds comes basically just from books and other people's descriptions---until now. Hummingbirds are famous for their quick darting movements, and their ability to fly sideways and backwards (and to hover motionless) at will. This bird dances in short spurts back and forth in front of the feeder, eyeing me warily (I'm in a chair off to the side, only about 10 feet away). Then it swoops in and dips its beak into the feeder hole. After sipping the sugar water for a moment, it backs up slightly, suspends itself in midair, and tilts its head back slightly (does it need to do this to swallow, like other birds?). It then returns for more drinks.

When done, it puts on the afterburners and swoops off. Or, sometimes, it flies just a little way and rests on a twig on a dead branch on a nearby cherry tree. It stays there several minutes, cleans some feathers under a wing, swipes its pipette of a beak on either side of a twig, and then and only then lights out for other territories. Later, I am surprised to learn that one of my bird books states authoritatively that hummingbirds rarely perch, and then only for a few moments. But I learned from a Hummingbird site on the Web that they spend as much as 80% of their time perched on twigs, stems, etc., to save energy while surveying their surroundings. Yet these are also birds that suddenly in September are gone, motoring to South American at perhaps over a hundred miles a day.

Once one of the hummers was surprised to see me sitting there on the porch right near where it wanted to feed. It flew directly at me and then stopped about a yard away, at eye-level, flaring out its little tail the better to brake itself, darting slightly to the right and left and staring directly at me for several seconds, sizing me up, daring me to look away first. But I couldn't. It was as if I was hypnotized, held motionless by a ruby gaze, a jerky pendulum-like motion, a sonorous zhwhirring in my inner ear.

The bird's body is no bigger than my thumb. Its wings move so fast that the body's outline suddenly seems to evaporate into a blur right before my eyes: it can see the dark edge of the torso and the shoulder muscles but then the edges of the feathered shoulders shimmer into a brown-red blur turning into transparent air, air rapidly in motion---the wings.

All the bird's decisions seem as quickly made as its wings beat. Time to go! means flying away in the wink of an eye, a bee-line (hum-line) towards an opening in the sky, with a chicane-zig mid-way. I stare after it in wonder and then begin doubting I really saw what I just saw, an after-image on the retina or a swerve and leap of thought.

In Italian Renaissance painting, angels' wings were usually painted in minute detail, often outlining the markings on individual feathers on each wing. (Fra Angelico.) Gilt was also used when it could be afforded, making the wings appear to be even more inlaid and inwrought than the angels' garments. The desired result: to have the wings (especially in Annunciation paintings) give the effect of an aura luminously in motion and still at once---and seen in intimate detail, as if the whole scene were seen not with a natural eye but with the eye of eternity, able to stop time.

Yet those angels seem heavily in harness compared with a Ruby-Throat in flight.

layer'd angel images, Parthenon, Rome


A draft of the above was posted on the rec.birds board on the Web, 8-13-93.

One response included this:
"Hummingbirds... have a long bill, and when drinking nectar they open
their bill, extend their tongue, and lick up the nectar at a rate of 13 licks per second."

    From: kdyer@llnl.gov (Kathleen M. Dyer)
    Newsgroups: rec.birds

    Distribution: world


A good Hummingbird site on the WWW, with lots of links [June 1998]

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