My friend and I were visiting on my porch—socially distanced, it needs to be said—enjoying a quiet conversation, but every once in a while she couldn’t help but scrunch up her shoulders in an involuntary response. It wasn’t our conversation but the loud whirring buzz of a hummingbird zooming in to take a sip from the feeder hanging inches behind her head. Like a mini attack helicopter! Sometimes he (flashing his iridescent male plumage) didn’t stop for a drink but just wanted to be certain no one else was getting any of his feeder-food. Honestly, we weren’t even thinking of imbibing anything!
But there was contention, hence the drama. At least two other hummers made attempts to approach the feeder. The “owner” would swoop in and in a burst of bravado would chase the others away. That’s just my interpretation of the action; at least one other bird–a rival–looked exactly like the proprietor. But one was a bit smaller. Was it a youngster who didn’t know the rules? Could it have been the offspring of the male in charge? Hummingbirds are very territorial, so do they actively chase away their own young?
In the mid 1940s Margaret wrote and had distributed a collection of pamphlets she called “Washington Nature Notes,” one of which featured the Rufous Hummingbird. In it she describes the love life of this fiery species, noting that, …once the loved one has succumbed [to the ardent display tactics used to woo a mate] and the honeymoon is over, our gay Lothario is off and away with a troop of other carefree males. All summer long they flit from flower to flower without a thought of domestic duties.
In other words, the male bird wouldn’t know his own offspring at all, so it is strictly a territorial battle and has nothing to do with careful parents getting young to find their own territories, except by happenstance.
That was one muse I had that evaporated upon a little reading but I had other questions to explore. I was glad to learn that hummers don’t rely only on nectar from flowers and the sweetened liquid our feeders supply, but also get a lot of nourishment from eating tiny insects. And a couple of times I’ve witnessed a hummer take a nip from my suet feeder. It seemed to do that out of curiosity having witnessed, perhaps, so many other birds flocking to the feeder. A taste was all it wanted; it didn’t come back for seconds, although watching it give it a try was a surprise. Has anyone else seen this?
In Margaret’s pamphlet she states that, “in March or April, when the Indian currant hangs out its rosy blossoms, the Rufous Hummingbird arrives from the south…the male…is the first scout to reach here. Like a winged coal of fire, he whizzes around the bushes of Indian current and flowering quince, then mounts up and up and zips from blossom to blossom of the plums and cherries.” She wrote those words almost eighty years ago, when it was the case that hummingbirds reliably migrated to Mexico every fall and were a harbinger of spring when the first flowers bloomed. How the world has changed!
Now, it is not uncommon to see hummingbirds stick around our feeders and gardens through the winter. It causes anxiety and wonder among those who normally would bring in their feeders during the cold months but who now feel responsible for the life and death of these birds who seem to have shrugged off the long journey and look to us to sustain them. There is all manner of advice about bringing feeders in overnight and returning them unfrozen in the morning, of warming feeders in microwaves or pans of steeping hot water, of owning multiple feeders so frozen ones can be easily swapped for fresh ones. And then there are gizmos you can purchase that keep the liquid warm outdoors without all the in-and-out. It all still feels fraught.
It brings home the ravages of climate change and our responsibility to do everything in our power to address it and deal with it now. Climate change is here now: it is changing ocean currents, wind patterns, our seasons—and our seasonal harbingers, like migrating birds. Are the Indian plum trees also blooming earlier to keep pace? If not, then feeders need to Mind the Gap in a new application of that cautionary plea.
Margaret didn’t have that extra burden. She saw her mission as getting more people, especially children, to delight in hummingbirds—and all that Nature presents—so that they would become enthusiastic conservationists out of love and their own experience of the wonders of the world. We still have that welling of love and wonder, now over layered with anxiety and even dread, but putting the love of nature first might strengthen us to deal with the latter. One bird at a time, one feeder kept fresh at a time. It’s getting cold outside, and late in the day.