Say Hello to My Little Friend–The Hummingbird

Have you ever been outside, maybe working in the garden, soaking up rays by the pool, or snoozing in the hammock, when suddenly a flying, sparkly green centurion with pointy black spear charges up, out of nowhere, dangerously close to your face?

This thing, whatever it is, seems simply to pop into existence with no more than a strange humming buzz, challenging your presence for a moment, and then popping back into the ether with a nigh-unperceivable tirade of twittering squeaks. You may be tempted to swat at it, thinking it is some monstrously mutated mosquito.

But then your stupor breaks and you realize the truth: You have just had a close encounter of the hummingbird kind.

These winged warriors are fantastic wonders of nature. Hummingbirds know not of fear and will faceoff with just about anything, curmudgeons that they are. They can perform feats of motion that almost defy the laws of physics, that seem to create G-forces strong enough to shatter the strongest material. And yet there they are, again and again, twirling and twittering and teleporting through the air nearly faster than the eye can see.

(And, if humans could understand them, they are probably cussing each other, us, and every other thing that is not sweet nectar. For Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory has to be right in thinking that “the hummingbird vocabulary is a hundred percent swear words”!1)

For a long time, I had a sort of unarticulated belief/assumption that hummingbirds simply hovered (i.e., hummed) 24-7. Nonsensical as it may sound, I simply imagined them being airborne at all times–eating, sleeping, heck maybe even giving birth.

But they do in fact perch, if only for fleeting moments as if to catch their breath. Honest. I have seen them do it, both on a feeder and on tree branches. They do in fact build nests, lay eggs, and brood them. They do in fact sleep. They do in fact stop flying, stop humming.

Although pipsqueaks even in the world of birds, they seem to carry the warm weather with them on their backs when crossing the borders of the Americas. The return of the hummingbirds is yet one more sign of the seasons, a promise that spring’s final chills will be wearing off soon.

Being as cold-blooded as a lizard, I often get my nectar prepared (plain sugar and water, 1:4, nothing else) and feeder up as early as March just in case a little hummer happens to buzz my way. In truth, though, it is sort of like a rain dance: my attempt to influence and propitiate nature so it will do what I want…warm up!

I am an early bird when it comes to preparing an ample supply of nectar and getting the feeders up for another reason. Their seasonal sojourns (without passports or customs clearance or long waits in airport lines) take serious tolls on their energy reserves. So super-sweet sugar water to sip along the way and when back “home” can be essential to their survival.

A garden or flowerbed with nectar-producing flowers is also helpful, for hummers and so many other species of birds and insects (butterflies and bees, for example). Some good plants for feeding the wildlife include bee balm, columbine, foxglove, and morning glory. (Bee balm and Japanese honeysuckle, while also good nectar flowers, are invasives and so best to avoid!) And FYI: hummers especially love the color red.

Whether you are courting warm weather or sweating out in the yard already, be sure to have your hummer feeders well stocked. You would also do well to get that flower garden dripping with nectar.

If you are lucky, you may just get up close and personal with a ruby throat, an Anna’s, a rufous, a lucifer, or one of the other varieties of avian acrobats. And perhaps those tirades of twittering squeaks you hear will be their professions of thanks, not their curses on your existence.

Happy humming!

Image credit: Jerry Oldenettel at Flickr.
1. Qtd. in Klesius, Michael. “Flight of Fancy.” National Geographic Magazine. Jan. 2007. 13 May 2008 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0701/feature4.

  1. Mary

    A couple of my favorite quotes were from an old article I read in Smithsonian, on paper, at least a decade ago. the article was about hummingbirds, and focused on a (national or state) park in Arizona where the hummingbirds concentrate during northern migration. A huge wave of hummer-loving tourists comes through in February to see thousands of hummingbirds. Rangers act specifically as docents then, feeders are everywhere. The writer quoted one conversation where a tourist said to a ranger, “They’re so sweet, and so tiny!” The ranger replied, “Yes ma’am, they are tiny.” Later, the ranger told the writer, “If they were the size of ravens, it would be dangerous to go outside.” He was unwilling to consider them sweet. 😉

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    This is a great anecdote, Mary. I am sure the ranger is very right. Imagine if hummers turned rebellious and came after humans. Even with their little size they could probably take us out…they certainly have the short tempers *and* the courage!

  3. Sheri Williamson

    Great title, Justin! For Pacino fans it gets across the “gansta” nature of these savage beauties.

    And Mary, that quote is from my husband and colleague Tom Wood, based on our experience as resident managers of The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Though the preserve isn’t the hummingbird hot spot it once was (development gets part of the blame), the mountains of southeastern Arizona still teem with hummingbirds from April through September (though less well-informed travelers do come looking for them in February). For more, visit http://www.sabo.org/hummers.htm.

  4. Tim in Albion

    Love the story about the ranger.

    One of the funniest things I’ve seen hummers do was the time a dozen of them briefly left off fighting each other, banding together in order to drive off a common enemy – a Sharp-Shinned Hawk! They saw him right off, chasing like a cloud of angry bees for maybe a hundred yards – then returning back to their disputes. (Swearing like longshoremen the whole time.)

  5. Justin Van Kleeck

    Tim, I think that is the funniest and most interesting hummingbird story I have ever heard. We better watch out: if the hummers can take on a raptor, beak and talon and all, I start to worry even more. We better start wearing goggles and helmets!

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