Mining the notebooks. On the porch. Thursday morning. July 23, 2015.
Heard a buzzing in the air close to my head just now and thought, That sounds like an awfully big bee.
Wasn’t a bee.
A hummingbird had come to visit. He was hovering about six feet above the porch floor, looking straight at me with what I took as an It’s about time look, as if he’d been there for a while, waiting for me to notice. So I noticed.
“Hello, how are you doing?” I said, being neighborly.
He seemed to nod, not so much in a return neighborly fashion, but in a Good, you’re paying attention. Now I can get on with this way. And then he did a little sideways dip to his right, rose straight up, hovered there a few seconds, and then shot off sideways to his left, his tail leaving a bit ahead of the rest of him so that he looked like he was being tugged off by an invisible hand that caught him by the feet.
Looked like something out of a cartoon.
I’m convinced he was showing off.
With a touch of arrogance.
Hummingbirds are a touch arrogant. And more than a tad belligerent.
“True to the aggressive nature of its family, the rubythroat is quick to fight,” writes Crawford E. Greenewalt in National Geographic’s Song and Garden Birds of North America. “Almost any aerial intruder into this bird’s established territory risks attack, regardless of size.”
I wasn’t surprised to see the hummingbird hanging in the air there. This guy has been flittering about the house all summer. A couple of weeks ago he spent several minutes investigating the holly bush by the front stoop and last month he came right up to the living room window and studied the place as if thinking about making an offer on the house. I was surprised he’d come in so close. I could have reached out and snatched him out of the air, if I had hands as fast as Bruce Lee’s and he was the slowest hummingbird in Upstate New York, without having to rise an inch from my chair. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. If I had put my hand out, he might very well of landed on it. Hummingbirds aren’t shy around human beings. They’ve been known to feed out of people’s hands. It’s probably not because they trust us and like our company, as I’m convinced catbirds do. It’s that they’re confident we can’t lay a finger on them, they’re too quick and aerobatic.
Like I said, arrogant.
I’ve been calling him a him but I couldn’t tell that by looking at him this morning. I couldn’t see his throat patch. I couldn’t see any of his coloring. He looked brown. He looked brown when he came to the front window too. That’s because the sun was behind him. Ruby-throated hummingbirds’ feathers don’t carry pigments. Their iridescent colors---their green backs, the males’ red bibs---are structural, “like a rainbow or a drop of oil on wet pavement,” says Greenewalt, “not pigmentary, like a red tie or a blue dress.” The light has to be on them for their colors to appear. When I saw our hummingbird at the window I wondered what species he was, but I should have known. There are sixteen species of hummingbirds that call North America home but only one of them, the ruby-throat, lives in the eastern half of the United States.
I’m assuming this character who came to visit is the same bird that came to the window and I saw hovering around the holly bush, where the sun was on him and his colors, including his bib, did shine. If there are females in the vicinity, they’re probably not spending their time nearby. Hummingbirds don’t really mate. They hook up. Greenewalt again: “The female who has been courted and won leaves the male to his philandering and begins building her nest immediately,” raising her young on her own. The males are incorrigibly promiscuous, feathered Don Juans, Greenewalt calls them, “with interests limited to food, fighting, and courtship.”
Fighting, Greenewalt believes, is something they do for sport.
Like most other birds, hummingbirds establish territories which they defend vigorously. Their belligerence, however, goes far beyond the simple needs of defense. I suspect that hummingbirds engage in aerial jousts most for the fun of it.
Food, though, has to be a constant concern. Since they’re almost constantly in flight, hummingbirds burn calories at a tremendous rate and need to refuel every 10 to 15 minutes, feeding 50 or 60 times a day. Theirs is a high-carb diet. “The daily intake of sugars, the principal food, may amount to half the bird’s weight.”
Greenewalt expands upon their metabolic efficiency.
For its size a hummingbird outperforms any warm-blooded animal. While hovering, it has an energy output per unit of weight about ten times that of a man running nine miles an hour. If a 170-pound man led the equivalent of a hummingbird’s life, he would burn up 155,000 calories a day and evaporate about 100 pounds of perspiration an hour. If his water supply ran out, his skin temperature would soar above the melting point of lead, and he would probably ignite.
Greenewalt adds, “There is much to be said for our relatively sedentary existence.”
Ruby-throated hummingbirds aren’t just marvelous aerial acrobats. They’re terrific long-distance flyers, as well. Come September, our ruby-throat will head south to take up winter residence in Mexico or Central America. To get there he’ll fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. A quarter to almost a third of a hummingbird’s body weight is wing muscle.
The hummingbird depends almost wholly upon its wings to move from one place to another; in fact, its legs are so underdeveloped that it cannot walk in the ordinary sense. I have seen a hummingbird sidle along on a perch, but even for the shortest distances it is more apt to use wings than feet.
I like Greenewalt’s capsule description of the hummingbird temperament, “In their day-to-day living hummingbirds are fearless, pugnacious, curious, and seemingly fully aware of their aerial capabilities.”
So I’m probably right. The ruby-throat who looked to be showing off this morning came around because he wanted to show-off.
Photo by Michael Hogan. Courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s indispensible website All About Birds.