Bienvenue Hummy !
Bienvenue, my old friend. We welcome you back to our home with open arms and an open heart. Mi casa es su casa. And it always will be. We can’t even begin to tell you what a truly good thing it is to see you once again. It’s been so long, and yet it seems like only yesterday we bid you Adieu. If Hummy is here, then we can begin the rights of spring, because he brings spring with him from far away. He is the harbinger of better times, at least for a while, and it is impossible that a smile is not painted on my face the first moment we see him after a long, hard, cold winter.
I don’t really like the word, but it is freakin’ ‘awesome ‘ to have a relationship with anyone, and especially when that someone is a ruby throated hummingbird. Friends, they come and they go. But a hummingbird is a friend for life. It is true that we don’t have the conversations that I would greatly enjoy. Ahh! The stories that he would have. The adventures he has experienced. The sights he has seen. But by no means does that imply that we do not communicate. He is a smart little cookie. At first, we took him a little for granted. We thought that he was just a bird, cute and all that, and certainly a pleasure to watch as he works hard to keep himself and his family alive. All animals lead a pretty harsh life, and we should always remember that. Man is the steward of the earth and all that walks upon it. We have responsibilities that come with being at the top of the food chain. I take those obligations to heart, or at least I try to. To do so with Hummy is a gift and a joy.
There is so much that is interesting about the ruby throated hummingbird. To begin with, a fully grown hummingbird is only 3.5 inches long and will weigh only a quarter of an ounce ( 5-6 grams ). Such a delicate and fragile creature. I only wish that we had more variety, but New England only allows a single species. Actually, the whole eastern half of the United States supports only the ruby, while there are over 330 known species. The really curious aspect of the hummingbird is that they exist only in the western hemisphere. Very curious indeed. More is the pity. And as beautiful as they are, the variety that exists is so varied and different, and the colors and behaviors so stunning, it is a shame we cannot share in all of their lives as well. Add to that the fact that only 10% of all these species will ever enter the United States or Canada, and that they exist only within 10 degrees of the equator, and the fragility of their existence takes on a new degree of importance. It would be a tragic loss if they were ever to disappear from our lives. We can only hope that this will never be an eventuality.
Our first glimpse into their intelligence and tenacity came from a chance encounter in the early spring, it must be 15 years ago, maybe more. We had put up a feeder the year before to try and have a better look at our little princes of the garden, with some degree of success. We have some large windows allowing us to look out from our kitchen, and the perfect place to install a feeder to attract, and therefore watch, some of the hungry little buggers. It was an enjoyable spring and summer, getting to know them on a somewhat intimate basis, as they went about their business collecting nectar from our gardens and flowers, and supplying them with some homemade sugar water when they needed a little added boost, and the flowers were not enough. They are protective of their food sources, and you will see them chasing any intruders that may come into their territory to usurp their pantry. Unless you are a female, of course. And you are interested after seeing him display his vibrant colors and watching his acrobatic antics. Then you are allowed to rest in his territory and when that happens, the real show begins. The dance of life. The courtship ritual. While she sits on a well-positioned perch, the male will climb to a height approaching 50 feet and dive down at his top speed, turning at the last moment to complete a U shaped pattern, over and over again, trying to help her decide that he is indeed an appropriate mate. He may do figure 8’s in front of her as well, all the time fluttering his wings to make a buzzing sound, and chirping continually, always with the intent to prove he is worthy of her attentions. He will attempt this time and again to convince her. This can go on for days, or even weeks, until she decides.
In any case, he is always successful, for there is a new family each and every year. It is a joy to watch the family work tirelessly to harvest and cultivate the collection of nectar from their kingdom, and we never grow tired of sharing a moment with them, whenever the opportunity presents itself. The life of a hummingbird starts out in a spacious nest, measuring a full 1″ by 2″, where the female lays 1 to 3 eggs. Guess she needs a slightly larger nest for a larger family. The eggs are huge, being one half inch max. They weigh up to 1.4 grams. To put that in perspective, a US penny weighs in at 2.5 grams or 1/10th of an ounce. The newborn chick weighs in at .6 g Will wonders ever cease?
To our delight, the encounters with our little friends were often and varied. The little rockets zipping past your face when you least expect it. Most times you hear the humm and never even see them, but you know they are around and that is enough. And other times, when they spend what seems like hours, meticulously visiting every last flower we have, some receiving second and third attempts, to draw every last drop of nectar to power their little engines. And be careful what you wear. They love the color red and will pay undue attention to you, only to be disappointed as you are not the mythical mother of all flowers that they were weaned on as little hummies, only weeks ago. Nature being relentless, the seasons came and went, and sometime in September, so too went the hummingbirds. A lot of activity at the feeder as they prepared for their winter sojourn to where ever they go when old man winter comes to New England.
The next spring came as well, and it was coming up to Mother’s Day. We had an exceptionally nice day to enjoy on the deck after an interminably long winter shut indoors. There was no thought as to our little friends at this point, since our experience was limited. But then, in the blink of an eye, there was a hummingbird simply floating right there is front of us, seemingly expectant of some action on our part. Their ability to hover is uncanny. Their normal wingbeat is over 50x per second. Per second, mind you. And that increases to over 200 when they go into maneuvers. You could almost feel that he was disappointed that we did not understand. And then he was gone, to who knows where. But in a few seconds he was back again, and again waiting for a response on our part. And then? Nothing. Gone. We went inside, only to glance out our window, and see him hovering only an inch from the bottom of the dangling chain, the one that holds his feeder, which of course was nowhere to be seen, cleaned and packed away for the winter. It now became quite obvious what he was looking for, and we quickly got down to business and retrieved the feeder, whipped up a quick recipe and had him set up in minutes, when he proceeded to drink his fill. Little did we know at that time that he had just returned from his arduous winter sojourn. We will never really know where they go in the winter. It is not like he drops us a line or a postcard. There is not a lot of history with banding hummingbirds so information is somewhat sparse, but most of the rubies tend to go to Central America, specifically Costa Rica, where there is an inordinate amount of the most beautiful hummingbirds that exist today. The variety is breathtaking. It makes you wonder why they ever return, but they do. Some go to other Central American destinations, while many visit southern Mexico. Some only go as far as the southern tip of Florida. Snow birds, probably. Do they change their winter destinations on a whim, or are they drawn to a specific location, as they are to our little piece of nature in New England? Something to think about.
But the trek across the Gulf can be a long and dangerous one. You would think Florida, with its climate, and abundance of flowers, would be enough to bring them contentment. Maybe the varied and versatile flowers of Central America are superior to Florida, but who knows. In any case, their trip across the gulf can be quite an undertaking for a bird that has to eat almost continuously, just to stay alive. A hummingbird will feed on up to 2000 flowers in a single day. They only eat nectar, and insects, and our sugar water, in a pinch. The nectar is high in energy, and they need it. The trip over the Gulf of Mexico is over 500 miles and will take over 20 hours with no food and no water. They ‘ bulk ‘ up with an extra whopping 1 gram of fat or so for the trip, which is used in its entirety, and then some. It somehow does not seem that would even be enough for the task at hand, and yet they continue the attempt, year after year, driven to their destinations by an imperative even they may not understand. During migration, their heartbeat can approach 1200x per minute. Conversely, during cold nights they can slow their hearts to a handful of beats as they enter a near hibernation state know as torpor. All in all, the ruby throated hummingbird, and all hummingbirds for that matter, once again display themselves as a miracle of nature, a delightful experience, and something that can only illustrate the fact that life has a lot to offer, and is full of wonder, and we should appreciate and embrace every moment we can, for we know not how many slices of eternity we have coming our way.
That first year, and the following spring, was an especially pleasant learning experience. There is never a wasted moment when we learn and grow from the episodes that happen all around us, every day of our lives. We have since found out, that this was not only a hungry hummingbird, tired and exhausted from his journey, but the exact same one that had left the year before! How do we know this? From research, and personal experience over the next 15 years, it has become quite clear that these industrious little birds will return, unerringly, year after year, to the same environment they left 6 months previously. And not only that, it will be consistently within a day or two of Mother’s day, at least for us here in New England, and the weather will not deter them. We make it a point to have the feeder ready for them after their trip, and on the few occasions that we forget or they are early, they will find us and make their displeasure known, quite explicitly, by chirping and dive bombing us where ever we are, coming within inches of our heads, never touching and never hurting. The well-known humm of their flight is a welcome addition to the sights and sounds of our garden, and our life. We are blessed with the knowledge of their existence, and are thankful that we were able to share our path with them, at least for a moment of time, kindred spirits and soul mates.