Sunday, July 25, 2021

Flying jewels

     Hummingbirds are special. Most birds fly, which is incredible enough. Hummingbirds, alone among birds, hover, their wings beating so fast—50 times a second—there is no need for forward motion to keep them airborne. The wonders of this bird are so many they defy brief listing, though chief among them has to be that unique figure-8 method of flapping that allows hummingbirds to stay aloft by alternating between beating the bottom then the top of their wings against the air. Talk about efficiency.
     To that, add the marvel of smallness, the first thing that Europeans noticed when they encountered this species of bird only found in the Western hemisphere.
      "There is a curious bird to see to, called a humming bird, no bigger than a great Beetle," Thomas Morton wrote 1637 in New England Canaan, a furious critique of Puritanism that became the first book banned in the New World.
     "Much less than a Wren, not much bigger than an humble Bee," Richard Ligon wrote in A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados in 1657.
    More recently, Kenn Kaufman perfectly dubs them "flying jewels" in Birds of North America. Harriette Wilbur, in her priceless 1920 Bird Gossip refers to the hummingbird she spends hours and hours watching as a "tiny elf," its "thimble-nest" concealing translucent, pea-sized eggs. 
      Hummingbirds weigh about 3 grams—a little more than a penny—and at that size, certain design sacrifices are required. Their feet, for instance. The birds cannot walk, or even hop, but must shuffle awkwardly if need be. If you've wondered how they suck nectar through those long thin beaks (you haven't, but it's nice to pretend) the truth is, they don't. They wet their beaks in nectar then lick it off with their long clear tongues, a process that they must do well, because they can consume half their body weight in a day.
   D.H. Lawrence finds wonder anew by inverting the size situation in his delightful poem about hummingbirds, imagining them as the first creatures at the dawn of time:
     Before anything had a soul,
     While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate
     This little bit chipped off in brilliance
     And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
     He imagined a time of giant hummingbirds.
     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.
     Expert that I am, I can tell at a glance that the bird in this series of photos, shot in Marcellus, Michigan by reader Nikki Dobrowolski, is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
     I'm joking. They all are, mostly. The Ruby-throated is the only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern half of the United States. Though occasional stray Rufous hummingbird and other varieties do stray over here from the West. 
     To get a sense of the impoverishment this limitation represents, there are 150 species of hummingbird in Ecuador alone and 320 or so in the Americas. 
     Being American, they of course are warlike, despite their size. Like our country, they have an excuse for their aggression, though theirs is a better one: needing to feed so often and fly so far—some hummingbirds spend half their lives migrating, and can cover 20 miles a day—they can't indulge other birds that might be interested in the flowers they need to power up on. So hummingbirds are famous for fiercely driving off birds three times their size to literally eat their lunches.  
     Despite all this, hummingbirds, like people, can become bolloxed by our artificial world, and sometimes need a helping hand, as Nikki explained when she sent me these photos. "It’s not often you get to touch a hummingbird," she writes. "One flew into my garage today and kept trying to get out through the window. I put my hand out to guide it toward the door, and it did buzz my hand for a moment. I was able to get these shots on my iPhone, not bad pics of a live bird. Hope you enjoy them."
     I would say we all have. Thank you Nikki.


  1. Hummingbirds do not actually lap nectar off of the beak. Tiny structures at the tip of their forked tongues gather the nectar, moving the nectar to the inside of the beak. PBS has a Nature show, "Super Hummingbirds" showing how a UConn researcher photographed this action:

  2. We have a feeder for them but this year their visits have been scant, unlike past summers.

    1. We are members of Journey North. Lots of info on the hummingbirds migration

  3. Sweet piece! Who doesn't love these little magical beings? Great photos too, well done done Nikki. I had to do some more research about the tongues too.'s%20tongue%20can%20stick,into%20a%20nectar%2Drich%20flower.&text=As%20the%20bird%20pulls%20its,the%20nectar%20within%20the%20tongue.

    1. Thank you Caren. They are a magical part of my garden, and I'm thrilled I actually touched one in flight.

  4. Here's what Mary Oliver has to say, to add to the hummingbird poetry:

    The female, and two chicks,
    each no bigger than my thumb,
    in their pale-green dresses;
    then they rose, tiny fireworks,
    into the leaves
    and hovered;
    then they sat down,
    each one with dainty, charcoal feet –
    each one on a slender branch –
    and looked at me.
    I had meant no harm,
    I had simply
    climbed the tree
    for something to do
    on a summer day,
    not knowing they were there,
    ready to burst the ledges
    of their mossy nest
    and to fly, for the first time,
    in their sea-green helmets,
    with brisk, metallic tails –
    each tulled wing,
    with every dollop of flight,
    drawing a perfect wheel
    across the air.
    Then, with a series of jerks,
    they paused in front of me
    and, dark-eyed, stared –
    as though I were a flower –
    and then,
    like three tosses of silvery water,
    they were gone.
    in the crown of the tree,
    I went to China,
    I went to Prague;
    I died, and was born in the spring;
    I found you, and loved you, again.
    Later the darkness fell
    and the solid moon
    like a white pond rose.
    But I wasn’t in any hurry.
    Likely I visted all
    the shimmering, heart-stabbing
    questions without answers
    before I climbed down.
    Mary Oliver
    White Pine (1994)

  5. And more about hummingbirds' use of feet: Someone's in a bird wormhole... :)

  6. Thanks for posting my photos. I'm pleased that they sparked such an interesting deep dive into all things hummingbird. I never knew about their foot limitations so thank you for such a great article.


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