It hatches from an egg the size of a Le Sueur English pea, weighing 1/50th of an ounce. Even fully grown, the hummingbird is so light that you could mail eight of them for the price of a first class stamp.
But the fact that they are small and beautiful (Audubon called them “glittering garments of the rainbow”) is not the only reason I like hummingbirds. No, for that gets them dismissed as precious. Who else likes hummingbirds? There are two groups. The first is composed of sweet old ladies who crochet antimacassars. (I am anti-antimacassars.) This group likes the idea of the hummingbird. The second group is composed of grizzled men in their sixties and seventies who drive huge rusted pickups and stalk the birds and log their statistics the way neighbors study draft picks. This group loves hummers because they understand what hummers are: engineering marvels. And shit-kicking badasses.
These men are almost as driven as the hummers they study: Fred Bassett, former air force pilot (“Following flying things is second nature to me”), and Bob Sargent, electrician, and cofounder with his wife, Martha, of the Hummer/Bird Study Group. Their house in Clay, Alabama, is the original HBSG station and more than thirty thousand rubythroats have been banded there. Bob is famous with hummingbird enthusiasts for, among other things, recapturing the same rubythroat eight years in a row. Relatively little is known about hummingbirds, and these two men have collected a lot of the data that does exist (“HBSG-affiliated banders hold nearly 25% of the banding permits issued by the Bird Banding Laboratory,” according to the HBSG pamphlet). Sargent’s eight-times-paroled bird flies in the face of (excuse the pun) previous beliefs that the rubythroat life cycle was around four years. Also, until recently, it was believed that rubythroats were the only hummers found east of the Mississippi. But the HBSG’s recent data refute this; members have banded thirteen other species here: “Rufous, Allen’s, Broad-tailed, Buff-bellied, Calliope, Black-chinned, Magnificent, Anna’s, Costa’s, Green Violet-ear, White-eared, Broad-billed, and Green-breasted Mango.
I like hummingbirds because—I’m not supposed to write this, much less think it, for I’ll be accused of anthropomorphism—they like me. They have become my pets. Or I have become theirs.
An eager mixologist, I twice a week cook my hummer cocktail, four parts water to one part sugar, boil it and cool it and fill the nectar wells of my twin HummZinger feeders. Yes, hummers eat sweetness, but that does not make them sweet.
They consume on average between one and three times their weight in nectar daily, usually obtained from flowers, not feeders. They can juice up to one thousand blossoms a day. (In fact, one way the HBSG determines the age of hummers is by examining the bills to see how much the grooves have been worn down by friction.) And almost any brightly colored flower will do. Unlike that other beloved migrant, the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars sup only on increasingly-difficult-to-find milkweed, hummers are promiscuous. They’ll press their long, forked tongues deep into the throats of beach rosemary, yellow jessamine, Japanese honeysuckle, lyre-lead sage, red buckeye, coral honeysuckle, coral bean, wild azaleas, fire pink, scarlet gilia, and tulip poplar trees. They soulkiss those flowers, their cheeks freckling with pollen, which they shamelessly smear into the face of the next floozy flower. Some HBSG members claim that, as pollinators, rubythroats are ten times more effective than bees.
Hummingbirds are much more than merely small (though the bee hummingbird is the smallest bird on Earth, and I’ve seen a photo of one perched quite commodiously on a pencil’s eraser). And they are much more than merely beautiful (though they are that; the first Spanish explorers called them joyas voladoras, flying jewels. In fact, they’re compared to jewels so often that hummingbird aviaries in zoos throughout the world are known as “jewel rooms”).
They are also unique in startling ways. They’re fast—they have the most rapid wingbeat of all birds, reportedly up to two hundred beats per second, and reliably to eighty per second. Their flight muscles make up 30 percent of their weight. They can fly up to sixty miles per hour during courtship dives. They’re smart—they have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all birds, 4. 2 percent of their total body weight. And they’re hugely kinetic—they have the greatest relative energy output and greatest heart-to-body ratio of any warm-blooded animal. They’re dexterous—they’re the only birds that can rotate their wings in a circle, so they alone can fly forward, backward, up, down, and sideways, as well as hover, and even, for short distances, fly upside down. (The logo of the American Helicopter Society is the hummingbird.) And, lastly, they’re efficient. Although their metabolism is a hundred times an elephant’s, they’re among the few birds that can enter the trance-like state called torpor, come evening, in which they perch on a branch, fluff their feathers, slow the rate of their heart and breath, and lower their temperature, to conserve energy.
It’s June, and my husband and I are adding a room to our house because we have a new baby on the way. The construction guys often traverse the patio where our feeders hang. Mississippi is not, for the most part, as segregated as movies would have you believe, but the teams of guys who’ve worked in waves on our house are as segregated and specific as medieval guilds. First, the Hispanic men, who took down the old wall and laid the new foundation and cursed softly in Spanish and sang softly in Spanish while they worked. Then came the team of black bricklayers, whose stories I listened to over the rhythmic thunking of their trowels against the bricks: “And I said, ‘Little Poot, you ain’t even SEEN a lightning bolt,’ ” and then the huge laughter, and me on the other side of the wall laughing too, though I didn’t hear enough of the joke to really appreciate it. Then at last the smaller team of white electricians, surly and expensive. “Can you adjust the dish while you’re up there?” shouted the contractor to one electrician, balanced on the roof pitch. “Yah,” answered the electrician, spitting tobacco juice down into the holly, “but it’ll cost you extra.”
Again, I’m probably not supposed to be observing or commenting on these things—generalizations can sound like stereotypes—but I am pregnant and moon-dreamy and observing. Not doing—observing. And the hummers repay my interest. They’re better than daytime drama. There’s a dominant male who perches in the Bradford pear, hidden among the leaves, waiting for another hummer to even think about sipping his nectar. Should one try, he zings after it and chases it away, then loops back to his perch and resettles himself with a cartoonish fluffing of his throat gorget. Four or five years ago, before I knew much about hummers, I assumed the dominant male was territorial because he was worried that the nectar would run out. So I bought a second feeder and hung it in the second pear tree. Now he has twice as much nectar and is twice as aggressive, chasing competition from two feeders. This little thug would wear Doc Martens if he had them, tag the branches with spray-paint.
When the first team of workers was laying the foundation, occasionally I would hear a commotion, and if I push-heaved myself from the couch I could see one of them running across the patio and waving his arms while his coworkers laughed bright laughter. I couldn’t figure out why. Then the second team came, and one afternoon while I was outside watering the zinnias I heard hooting and turned to see a bricklayer scampering across the patio. The crew chief, named B7, was nearby, chuckling, and when I asked him what was going on, he told me that the hummingbirds would dive-bomb a worker who got too close, needling down from the pear tree, lifting up just inches from a worker’s head, then swooping down again.
“Mean little fuckers,” he said, while we watched the hummer resettle on his branch, and then, “Sorry for the language.”
I wanted to tell him that hummers don’t bite, that it would be like being attacked by a Q-tip, but he was already hitching up his tool belt and turning away. I walked inside, musing. I hadn’t guessed the men were being chased because the hummers had never chased me, nor my husband or children. Because, I realized, they recognize me. They know the hand that feeds them, and those who belong to that hand. Bob Sargent suggests that hummingbirds do recognize familiar people and things. Sometimes he bands a bird and catches it a subsequent year and then it seems the bird starts altering its flight pattern. “Hummers can see a nectar source 3/4 of a mile away. “It’s possible,” he says with a grin, “they’re starting to recognize my truck.”
The best story about the hummingbird’s powers of recognition comes from The Hummingbirds of North America (1983) by Paul A. Johnsgard. In 1966 a scientist named Fitzpatrick
placed a hummingbird feeder outside his bedroom window while he was recuperating from tuberculosis in a California sanitarium. Soon a rufous hummingbird took possession of the feeder, and thereafter Fitzpatrick watched it closely for several months. When he was finally able to go outside in a wheelchair, Fitzpatrick was immediately “greeted” by the hummingbird, which careened around his head and hovered in front of his eyes. After almost a year, when Fitzpatrick returned to his home some 13 kilometers away, the rufous somehow managed to follow him and took up residence near his house. Later, the bird usually accompanied him on his daily walks. It sometimes called his attention to the presence of other animals that he might have otherwise overlooked—once noting a half-hidden rattlesnake—and eventually rode on the rawhide lace that served as a rifle sling. When he had fully recovered from his illness, Fitzpatrick left his house for a month. Yet, only moments after he returned and got out of his car, the hummingbird was there, zooming about his head and hovering in front of his eyes!
Consider that a hummer has a brain the size of a BB. Then, think of the information packed inside. Do you remember every good restaurant where you’ve eaten? Hummers do, and they stop at the same gardens each year. This appears to be actually hardwired into their genetic codes, because even hatchling-year hummers juice up where their ancestors juiced.
Many things grow a bit too well in Mississippi. Trumpet vine is so abundant my neighbors call it a weed and rip it out. Not me: I stake it, because a hummer loves its coral cups, and I love to watch one land on the vine (its landing body curves into a C-shape, wings lifted, tail tucked; there should be a yoga pose called Hummingbird) and think how this hummer’s descendants might stop here one day, too. Might also lift, dart, and burrow into the trumpets. Might “feed by thrusting their Bill and Tongue into the blossom of Trees”—this from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1693)—“and so suck the sweet juice of Honey from them; and when he sucks he sits not, but bears up his Body with a hovering Motion of his Wings.”
Although hummingbirds were first written about in 1558 by a French colonialist in Brazil, and have been written about ever since, we still know relatively little. They’ve left few fossils, so their evolution is largely conjectural. Taxonomists find them difficult to classify. Six new species were discovered in the 1970s, according to Johnsgard, so more may exist. Because they’re so small and fast, they’re hard to photograph; Cindy Walpole, struggling to complete a book on Costa Rican hummers, complains, “Often, it is not until after about ten thousand images that we get what we are looking for.”Their mating habits are mysterious, and we aren’t sure how a female selects a mate, though she seems to prefer the meanest, most aggressive male. We know they have a narrow songbook, but what vocalizations they do make are still largely uninterpreted. (Joke told by my nine-year-old: “Why do hummingbirds hum? Because they don’t know the words.”)
In fact, until the 1970s, people didn’t quite know, or couldn’t quite believe, how far hummingbirds migrate. Come early autumn, rubythroats move south from their breeding grounds, gorging on food to double their weight (to roughly two pennies’ worth). Then they lift off one evening and fly through the night without stopping, a trip of five hundred miles, over the Gulf, to winter in Mexico. People had such a hard time believing the hummingbirds were capable of this flight that the myth developed that hummers hitch rides on the backs of geese. Then, the story goes, a guy working an oil derrick in the middle of the Gulf was suddenly surrounded by thousands of hummers—a huge electrical storm had forced them to land on the only surface available. And he had a camera, so he was believed. Now there are groups of hummingbird fanatics (yes, I’m one) who post their migrant sightings online, marking an interactive map so others farther north can get their feeders ready. We veteran bartenders know that if you’re late, veteran hummers will hover in front of the window where you usually place your feeder. And they won’t look happy.
Sargent and the others in the Hummer/Bird Study Group believe that some hummers, perhaps more and more due to global warming, are skipping the cross-Yucatan trek and overwintering in the southern Gulf states. With the fervency of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the HBSG folksurge us to keep our feeders out all winter. If we spot a winter hummer (any lingering past November 15; apparently, you can see them sometimes trying to draw nectar from red Christmas lights), we’re to immediately phone an HBSG member, who will come band our bird. “We’re going to have buff-bellied hummers breeding in Mississippi in a few years,” predicts Fred Bassett.
Bassett gives a hummer banding demonstration every Septemberat the Hummingbird Migration Celebration in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The celebration is held at the Audubon Center, which headquarters in the 1851 Davis House, surrounded by the native plants that hummers adore. These fiercely independent birds that do not flock nevertheless course by in such numbers their bodies form a river of roiling iridescent emerald.
The Migration Celebration includes talks and demonstrations, and dozens of feeders hang outside the house’s large windows so that visitors can sit inside in rocking chairs and watch the hummers’ antics. But the highlight for sure is the banding tents. Here Fred Bassett is surrounded by those antimacassar women who wield sharp elbows to ensure an unimpeded view. Bassett is a full-time volunteer with HBSG. If that strikes you as a sweet hobby, Bassett reveals what “full-time” means: in the previous five months, he’d been home only ten days. The others, he’d been on the road, banding.
As Bassett lifts a rubythroat from the mesh netting where it’d been trapped, we all crowd in, my husband lifting our six-year-old onto his shoulders to see better. With a dial caliper, Bassett takes measurements that another volunteer records—bill length (“14. 97 millimeters”), wing chord (“42. 2 millimeters”), and weight (“2. 77 grams”)—and I can’t help but recall my last ob-gyn appointment, in which I too was weighed and measured. Bassett guesses the bird’s a female based on its size—they’re 1/3 bigger than males—and its white throat, but he spreads its tail feathers to be sure. Immature males don’t have the red gorget until their first winter, so a bander sexes the birds by looking for white-tipped tail feathers, which this bird has. His assistant logs “female” in the record book.
Meanwhile, Bassett selects a tiny metal C-shaped band and with his pliers clamps it over the hummer’s leg. The band is so small it fits over Lincoln’s eye in a penny, and the relative weight, says Bassett, is “comparable to a wristwatch on a human.”Each band has been photoengraved with a serial number that’s filed with the Bird Banding Laboratory so someone encountering the bird later can report it to 1-800-327-BAND (and receive a certificate of appreciation). Through analyzing data, BBL learns the birds’ natural history, abundance from year to year, and migration details. “A hum I banded in Tallahassee was found in Alaska,” Bassett says with pride. “And I caught a bird in Foley, Alabama, that had been banded in British Columbia.”
He pushes back the jeweler’s loupe onto his forehead and holds out the banded claw to the onlookers. He then blows through a plastic straw onto the hummer’s breast, which separates its feathers so we can see what looks like a little blister—the fat deposit the hummer will draw down as she makes her eighteen to twenty-four-hour flight. Then he has several onlookers extend their palms, where he rests the hummer so they can feel the rapid heartbeat. Then, he lets it go.
I have felt that heartbeat. I have felt it in my hand.
It’s what started me on my spiraling flight into the territory of rubythroats. This was perhaps six years ago, July. I was picnicking with a friend and she had to leave her house for a few minutes to drive her daughter to a birthday party. I started clearing the picnic table and balanced a big bowl of tomatoes on my hip so I could fling open the screen door when my eye caught a flash of scarlet, my ear a high-pitched drone, like a small plane far away. I looked at the screen door, and it was pierced by a needle—the bill of a hummingbird, furiously winging. I watched, waiting for it to maneuver free. But it could not. It called a harsh “tchick-tchick” and tugged its bill so frantically I was afraid it would snap. Later, I’d learn from my hummingbird listserv that usually by the time you find a hummer caught in a screen, it’s dead.
Had there been someone else to do it, I would have had someone else do it. But I was alone. And it was probably the bowl of tomatoes I hipped that had lured him, after all. So I set it down and gently put my nervous hand to the nervous bird, hoping it would rest easy, but it flung itself up and ricocheted back. I closed my fingers and stilled the wings. It was so small, small as a child’s pinky. I could feel its heartbeat fluttering in the hollow of my hand, and felt my own. I twisted it clockwise. I unscrewed that bird. Then I held my palm flat and waited for it to zip away. It rested there—perhaps too stunned to move, I don’t know, but it seemed like a moment of grace, of hummer gratitude, one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi; then the lightning. Good-bye, good-bye.
It’s September, and my husband and I are in the obstetrician’s office, and I’m thinking about that hummer’s heartbeat in my palm. When torpid, hummers can slow their hearts to fifty beats per minute, but their hearts can race as fast as 1,260 beats, as measured once in a blue-throat. At this moment, according to the nurse who just examined me, my heart is clocking eight-five beats per minute. High, but we’re about to have the first ultrasound, and I’m nervous.
Finally the technician arrives and gessoes her wand and slides it over my belly. I am holding my breath, I am squeezing my husband’s hand, both our heads turned toward the monitor’s Rorschach of pixels. We do not speak of that other time, years ago, when there was a different baby inside me and at the three-month checkup there was no heartbeat. We do not speak of it, but we think of it, waiting for the technician’s circling wand to locate this baby’s heart. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi. And then the high rapid song, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. “There it is,” she says, and smiles. The machine clocks the baby’s muscle. “140 bpm,” she says, and then adds what seems like the best word in the English language, in any language, “Normal.” She removes the wand and my hand flies to the spot on my belly where I now know his heart to be. Hello, hello.
Hummingbirds have fidelity. They return to the spot where they hatched to build their nests.
Thus, starting in January the rubythroats leave their wintering grounds (some as far south as Panama) and begin to zing north, doubling their weight again to a pudgy two ounces. The males move first. They top off their tanks near dusk one evening in the Yucatan and then lift into the air, flying nonstop until they make landfall somewhere along the Gulf. Hummers don’t all fly the same night. Their staggered starts over a few weeks ensure that, should bad weather descend, the entire population won’t be wiped out. When they land, they refuel, then migrate north, to their ancestral birthplaces, some to the same tree, even the same branch. I tested this one year by attaching a twist-tie to the branch where my male hummer guarded the feeder, and it’s true, he chose the same perch the following year.
The female trails the migrating male perhaps ten days later. By now the male has established his breeding grounds, which he fiercely defends, flying each morning to its boundaries to utter his harsh call, the aural equivalent of a dog’s urine markings. These returning males are horny as hell, and brilliantly colored, having just completed a full molt. (They remind me of our human snowbirds who come back from southern climes with loud shirts and suntans.) The males won’t look so spiffy again. They grow ragged defending their territories. Sometimes all a rival male needs is a harsh scolding, especially if accompanied by a bit of posturing, the puffing out of the red gorget to appear bigger. But I’ve seen males body-slam, heard the tiny click of their chest bumps. I’ve seen them yank each other’s feathers out.
When the females arrive, the male settles down a bit, and eventually he might allow a female to feed in his territory; then he follows her as she flies away. In a neutral zone they’ll complete mating dives, large U-shaped salvos. If she’s receptive, they’ll mate, which takes about two seconds. And that’s the extent of the hummer marriage. She’ll build the nest and raise the hatchlings herself, a single mom.
The reality of hummer procreation, I think, wouldn’t jibe with the sentimentality of those who needlepoint hummingbird pillows. Or those who look and see what they’ve been told to see. In a recent Southern Living, Rick Bragg, whose Southern Journal column I usually admire, waxes poetic about hummers, “who often appear in pairs,” and it sounds a little off to me, a little poorly observed. They don’t mate for life. They don’t mate for a minute. Hummers have been miscast, misunderstood; that’s why looking, really looking, at them is so illuminating.
Unlike, say, a hen, who builds a nest and then lays eggs in it, with eggs and nest remaining the same size throughout, the hummer mama builds a nest that grows for eggs that grow. And me, with my stretching skin, my belly expanding to hold my expanding son, six pounds now, according to the doctor, how could I not admire the hummingbird mama? And here in our house with a hole, this addition promised to be finished by October—but the drywall’s not up, the windows ordered late and in the wrong size—how could I not marvel at her engineering efficiency?
This is what I’ve learned from Ruby-Throated Hummingbird by Bob Sargent: “Within the brain of a female ruby-throat there lie many miracles, none more beautiful and amazing than the blueprint for her nest, which includes detailed instructions for location, materials, shape, and size.” She starts to build this nest before she’s even found a mate. Soon, two eggs will be ripening within her. Sometimes a female is able to repair her nest from the previous year, but if she can’t she’ll build another, which usually takes six to eight days. (Meanwhile, our construction project stretches from six months to eight.) She selects a branch “strong and flexible, able to withstand being severely blown about by the wind. It cannot droop lower than three yards when battered by heavy rainfall,” Sargent writes. Also, the “pencil-sized” limb is usually “located near the tip of a downward-sloping branch” and covered with foliage to shade the babies, which hatch blind, black and naked.
Of what are the nests made? The base is constructed of thistle and dandelion down and animal fur. Sometimes I’ve cleaned out my brush and strung the long red hair along ourholly bushes, pleased to imagine my locks might be of use. The hummer attaches these fibers to the branch with super-strong spiderweb (taking the opportunity to eat any “spiders or prey ensnared in the web if she can swallow them”). With her bill, she’ll apply tree sap as glue. Sargent notes, “All during the nest building process, she periodically sits in the nest and squirms about, fitting the interior to just the right size for her body.”
After this base is constructed, she builds the side wall, thickest near the base and attenuating as it rises so “the rim of the nest will stretch like fine elastic material,” eventually flattening out to accommodate the growing hatchlings until the nest resembles what it will become—a launching pad. The nest when completed is about 1. 5 inches tall, the circumference of a quarter, “resembling half an English walnut.”
It seems, with such a blueprint, that nests should be easy to find, but they’re not. I know; I’ve gone searching. Female rubythroats are master camouflagers. They take the lichens and mosses already found on the branch and paste them to their nests. In photos, the nest looks like a small bump, with the green patina of weathered copper. Sargent notes that while she builds, the female sings little so as not to draw attention to her nest, and she rarely takes a direct route when flying to it.
And sometime during this process, the two-second marriage occurs and her eggs are fertilized. She’ll lay one half-inch-sized egg, and then, a few days later, the second. Incubation takes perhaps two weeks. When the eggs hatch, the mother leaves the nest only to gather food, growing thinner and weaker herself during these three weeks. When she returns to the nest, her wings ruffle the hatchlings’ sensitive downy feathers, which triggers their heads to pop up and their beaks to yawp open, the way a nursing baby turns on instinct to his mother, mouth opening when his cheek is brushed lightly with the nipple. (If you find a nest and want to see the hatchlings’ faces, you can trigger the same instinct by blowing lightly on their backs.) She then inserts her bill into her babies’crops and regurgitates nectar and small bugs. About three weeks after hatching, during which time the hatchlings have grown feathers and exercised their wings, they fledge. Meanwhile the mother usually builds a second nest nearby, for what is typically a two-nest cycle before migration season.
I fancy the idea of contributing to the HBSG’s quest to prove that hummingbirds are overwinteringin Mississippi so, come November, I don’t take my feeder in. All that month, and all December, when our addition is finished at last, I am there in my winter parka that no longer zips over my belly, dumping and refilling the untouched nectar. But I never do host a winter hummer. I feel oddly rejected. I laid out the banquet but the bridegroom never came.
I suppose my crush on rubythroats was inevitable. I’ve always been fascinated by miniatures. I have a grain of rice with Beth Ann carved in Japanese calligraphy. I enjoyed many girlhood Alice-in-Wonderland wanderings through the sixty-eight Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, each model on a scale of one inch to one footand featuring thimble-sized chandeliers that really illuminate, armoires the size of a deck of cards filled with silken smoking jackets.
I’m not alone in admiring the miniature, either. An October 26, 2011, New York Times piece investigates the growing trend of micro baked goods—inch-long cannolis, bite-sized cupcakes—and quotes Ingrid Fetell, a design writer, who feels small, sweet things “evoke near-universal delight”; especially when they are strongly colored, they are “associated in our lizard brains with pleasure.”I frequent the museum here at the University of Mississippi where I teach, and despite the strong collection of southern folk art, the most requested, most viewed item is the 1930s set of costumed fleas, arranged behind a magnifying glass through which you canadmire their embroidered outfits and matching sombreros. On the other end of the kitsch–high art scale is the work of Nikolai Syadristy, microminiature artist, whose exhibitions must be viewed through high-powered microscopes. He has created a golden chess set that sits on the head of a pin, a gathering of swallows on half a poppy seed, and a biblical camel caravan situatedin the eye of a needle. Syadristy must first create the tools he uses to build his microminiatures, and they are so delicate that he works only between the beats of his heart.
I like these things not because they are precious, but because they inspire me with wonder, they ask me to reenvision our relationship to space, they throw my own size into question and make our human scale seem not preordained and ordinary, but unlikely, arbitrary, and wondrous, too. I like hummingbirds because after observing them, I’m returned to the world with a fresh sense of its mystery and a renewed appreciation for being part of it. Yes, they are small, and yes, they are beautiful, but, marvelously, they function, and they function marvelously. Like, say, a baby’s hand. Like my baby’s hand that, here in the thirty-ninth week, presses for a second against the taut shell of my belly, perfect outline, glyph on a cave wall, and then withdraws.
It’s January. All is expectancy. To my south, the hummingbirds are eating, eating, readying for their difficult passage through the difficult night, ready to return to she who waits. She who builds a miniature, working between the beats of her heart.
Photo: Mike Baird