A Cape Cod Notebook 8/28/07

listenHummingbirds

By Robert Finch

Few things in the birding world give you as much bang for your buck as a hummingbird feeder. A few weeks ago a friend from New York gave us such a feeder. It was an ovoid about the size of an ostrich egg, made of clear glass with a red twist on the bottom. Following the instructions, I filled it with a boiled mixture of one part sugar to four parts water and hung it above the railing on our deck, near the trembling green leaflets and puffy pink blossoms of the mimosa tree.

Within days two ruby-throated hummingbirds, both females, showed up, dutifully poking their long, thin, needle-like bills into the two slots at the bottom of the feeder, like eager shoppers making withdrawals at an ATM machine. Though only a few feet away from where we sat having breakfast, they showed absolutely no fear of us. When they had sated themselves they flitted away, sometimes hovering briefly over the mimosa flowers.

Hummingbirds are justly celebrated as physiological marvels, for their iridescent, jewel-like colors; for their ability to hover and fly backwards, even upside down, as if equipped with personal jetpacks; for possessing the fastest wing beats and heartbeats in the avian world; for the ability of a bird weighing no more than a postage stamp to migrate non-stop hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico; and so on.

But for me the most remarkable thing about hummingbirds is not their flying abilities or physical attributes, but rather the fact that they don't act as if they were small. They act as if they have no idea that they are the tiniest of birds. Everything about them suggests stature. They're poised, not anxious, assertive, not shy. One hears them before one sees them, an aggressive, purposeful hum like a tiny buzz-bomb, but one that can stop on a dime and reverse direction in an instant. They chase off other hummingbirds with a kind of fierce animosity. I could swear that one day I saw one spit at another. They chase off chickadees and other birds more than twice their size. I think they would chase off a crow or a hawk if one showed up. What preys on hummingbirds, anyway?

Yet their manner and behavior is not that of the feisty bantam. Hummingbirds are not little Mickey Rooneys compensating for their diminutive size by bullying and braggadocio. Rather, they seem like creatures that live in their own world where they are, in fact, large, and that it's merely an accident that they materialize and move about in our world, an accident that has not affected their self-image at all.

I'm not the only one who has felt this way. Here's how D.H. Lawrence describes them in his poem "Humming-Bird":

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

myWGBH