Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio
A hummingbird won’t let another hummingbird anywhere near a feeder if it has anything to say about it. Or an even nastier hummingbird will come along and chase the first one away.
Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies” uses one word to describe these ruby-throated miracles of flight. Pugnacious. That pretty much says it all.
One time, I was standing on my porch enjoying a plum. A hummingbird flew over and hovered inches from my face. I’m convinced he was calculating the odds of taking me, of bullying the fruit out of my hand.
Another time I watched as two hummingbirds got into a fight to the death over my feeder.
The battle started in midair, then proceeded to the porch where one hummingbird pinned the other to the ground. The contest went back and forth, punishing blows struck by both sides, until the fight spilled off the porch and onto the grass. That’s where one of the combatants gained the upper hand and appeared to kill his opponent.
I let the victim rest in peace for about ten minutes, certain he was dead. But since I’d planned to mow the lawn that afternoon I stooped over to remove the sad corpse. As I did he zoomed off. He was only playing possum. Which I realize is a curious saying to employ when describing bird behavior.
But this is the sort of viewing pleasure you can have if you own a hummingbird feeder. You don’t need cable. You don’t need to subscribe to Netflix or HBO or Amazon. Just buy a feeder for a few bucks.
And one of the best parts is that after your initial investment, it’s essentially free. Ignore anyone who tells you that you have to buy hummingbird nectar at a store. Just stir one cup of sugar into four cups of water, boil and let cool.
Apart from all the other pleasures my feeder provides, saving money on hummingbird food ranks high.
Hanging my feeder also signals high spring. My first hummingbird arrived from down south the second week in May.
The event typically also signals that it’s time to retire my regular bird feeders for the season. I’d heard that if birds come to rely on your feeders and you stop filling them they’ll die. So I once asked a bird expert whether that was true. His response: “Do you really think birds are that stupid?”
In other words, if they can’t find a free lunch at your place they’ll go elsewhere. Besides, come the warm weather months nature more than provides.
I have precise rituals surrounding my hummingbird feeder. For example, after I make the nectar on my stove I pour it into its own designated green Pellegrino bottle.
The bottle has a label drawn by my younger daughter Gracie when she was a child. It has pictures of hummingbirds and the warning, “Stay away from the hummingbird food.” In case anyone mistakes the nectar for water.
I like the way she captured the tiniest of birds’ iridescent green bodies, their needle-like bills, and the way they hover while feeding.
Gracie is now twenty-three, and a professional chef, but I’m proud that I’ve managed to preserve the label, more or less intact, through dozens of washing of the bottle.
But, of course, the best part is sitting on your porch and watching the hummingbirds come and go. Sometimes I’ll have as many as four or five vying for the feeder. It feels like you’re running a busy regional airport.
By the way, the ruby-throated is the only Eastern species of hummingbird. On rare occasions our area is visited by the rufous hummingbird in the fall.
Among my favorite of the ruby-throated’s behaviors is the male’s mating dance. It’s a thrilling aerial display that involves swooping up and down in a series of ascents and dives, or shuttling back and forth, their wings making a distinctive humming sound.
While they’re showing off, the female sits on a comfortable branch calmly enjoying the performance. Her head turns back and forth, or up and down, like tennis fans following the motion of the ball as it crosses the net during an especially compelling point.
The first thing I do when I return to country from the city, after unlocking the front door, is fill the feeder. It will undoubtedly have been drained in my absence.
A few minutes after that the birds are back. Actually, they’ll sometimes be sitting there waiting for me, as if to say, “What took you so long?”
I’ve been told they’re probably the same birds from year to year. It’s incredible to think they’ll have migrated all the way from Mexico and Central America, where they spend the winter, to my feeder.
Come autumn, I’ll diligently scrub the feeder, as well as the nectar bottle with the label designed by daughter, and retire both for the winter.
Until then, there will be many flights and a few good dogfights, to watch.