During August and September, I enjoy watching and most particularly, interacting with hummingbirds. We’ve developed a relationship of sorts. Yeah, I know, I am anthropomorphizing this, but “frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn!”
We’re not talking about just birds here. These little beauties are not like blue jays or sparrows, cardinals or the other avian hobos who bum seed from me. No sir, these little beasties are much more complex, more animated, more feisty.
True disclosure here: I love the sound of a Ferrari V12 engine shrieking at maximum revs. There’s something about the frenetic purposefulness of a finely-tuned race engine that speaks to me on some primitive level. Like the hair-trigger response of a racing engine, the hummingbird’s whole being is wound up tightly. Its tiny heart beats as quickly as 1,260 times per minute; its breaths at an exhausting 250 cycles per minute. Living up to its name, this avian dynamo’s wings beat so quickly — and in a figure-8 pattern — that they hum. Pretty good for an animal that weighs, on average, about the same as a nickel.
I’ve suspected that my hummingbirds recognize me, and some scientists claim that’s very likely. They do recognize their regular flowers, one’s backyard, which flowers they’ve already visited during their latest foray, and some claim they can, indeed, recognize you. Earlier this summer, I prepared their feeder and its nectar solution, but after a week, I had no takers, despite seeing the hummingbirds at my flowers. After the first week of no apparent action at the feeder, I decided to clean it, refill and try again. As I approached the feeder, a hummingbird came right to me, hovering less than two feet right in front of my face, chirping and squeaking in that tiny scolding voice of theirs.
It just hovered there, seemingly confronting me. Being the hummingbird whisperer I think I am, I am certain this feisty display and vocalization amounted to something like: “What the hell is wrong with you? Who do you think you are trying to feed me this swill?” And yes, I am certain he said “hell!” They are that feisty. Even scientists claim their behavior is competitive and unsocial. Well, after the little monster read me the riot act, I discovered that I missed the instructions for the nectar I’d purchased. I had not mixed it in the proper 4:1 water to syrup formula. The bottom of the feeder was stuck with a sweet, sticky goo. Accepting my well-deserved dressing-down, I thoroughly washed the feeder and refilled it with the proper ratio. The next day we were back in business, and my friend enjoyed the potable nectar.
For my birthday, my wife bought me a different feeder for the hummingbirds. This one was flat, like a cake pan, with mock flowers molded into the top and holes providing access to the pool of nectar inside the feeder. This feeder was attached to our dining room window, so we could enjoy the hummingbirds up close and personal.
A few days after mounting this new feeder, the hummingbirds came. While they cautiously ogled the feeder, what was more interesting was that they hovered for some time close to the window, looking in on the two of us enjoying our breakfast. The body language seemed to say, “Sure, you can enjoy your breakfast, but how am I supposed to get my breakfast with this contraption?” I’ve only seen one hummingbird actually use it, but even he preferred the conventional feeder nearby.
When my timing has been right and I’d extensively prepared my cameras and tripod, I’ve been lucky enough to shoot slow-motion videos of the hummingbirds while they visit my flowers and feeder. The video captured their tongues, flicking in and out, something they can do at a rate of 13 times per second. At that rate they are giving KISS’ Gene Simmons something to work on!
And then there are their flying capabilities. They are the only known bird that can actually fly backwards. When I see this, I cannot help but recall the thrilling demonstrations I’ve seen at airshows of the Marines’ AV-8 Harrier aircraft doing the same thing. The slow motion revealed how the hummingbird articulated its wings to maintain stability and direction when they hover. It’s a true spectacle for any aerodynamicist. And like the Harrier jet and other modern warplanes, the tiny hummingbird can see in more than just visible light, using an additional lobe in its brain to detect ultraviolet colors — assisting the bird to find its “target,” the flowers offering nectar.
It is said that hummingbird metabolism is such that it needs to refuel — consume food — every 10 to 15 minutes. The average hummingbird usually consumes at least its own weight every day. If I did that, I’d be on display in a zoo somewhere. It may only take 30 to 45 minutes for its ingested food to be converted to energy, and its wing muscles are specially adapted to quickly extract oxygen from its food.
I’ll miss my feisty little friends as the weather cools and we head into autumn. They will begin their migration south of the border to the Gulf of Mexico, and unlike me, they won’t even need to wear a mask. And since they don’t migrate in groups anyway, social distancing is no problem.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy them. Just remember to mix your nectar properly or you just might get a lecture from this angry little bird.
Steve Lloyd writes from Clover Hill and may be reached at email@example.com.