It hatches from an egg the size of a Le Sueur English pea, weighing 1/50th of an ounce. Even fully grown, the hummingbird is so light that you could mail eight of them for the price of a first class stamp.
But the fact that they are small and beautiful (Audubon called them “glittering garments of the rainbow”) is not the only reason I like hummingbirds. No, for that gets them dismissed as precious. Who else likes hummingbirds? There are two groups. The first is composed of sweet old ladies who crochet antimacassars. (I am anti-antimacassars.) This group likes the idea of the hummingbird. The second group is composed of grizzled men in their sixties and seventies who drive huge rusted pickups and stalk the birds and log their statistics the way neighbors study draft picks. This group loves hummers because they understand what hummers are: engineering marvels. And shit-kicking badasses.
These men are almost as driven as the hummers they study: Fred Bassett, former air force pilot (“Following flying things is second nature to me”), and Bob Sargent, electrician, and cofounder with his wife, Martha, of the Hummer/Bird Study Group. Their house in Clay, Alabama, is the original HBSG station and more than thirty thousand rubythroats have been banded there. Bob is famous with hummingbird enthusiasts for, among other things, recapturing the same rubythroat eight years in a row. Relatively little is known about hummingbirds, and these two men have collected a lot of the data that does exist (“HBSG-affiliated banders hold nearly 25% of the banding permits issued by the Bird Banding Laboratory,” according to the HBSG pamphlet). Sargent’s eight-times-paroled bird flies in the face of (excuse the pun) previous beliefs that the rubythroat life cycle was around four years. Also, until recently, it was believed that rubythroats were the only hummers found east of the Mississippi. But the HBSG’s recent data refute this; members have banded thirteen other species here: “Rufous, Allen’s, Broad-tailed, Buff-bellied, Calliope, Black-chinned, Magnificent, Anna’s, Costa’s, Green Violet-ear, White-eared, Broad-billed, and Green-breasted Mango.
I like hummingbirds because—I’m not supposed to write this, much less think it, for I’ll be accused of anthropomorphism—they like me. They have become my pets. Or I have become theirs.
An eager mixologist, I twice a week cook my hummer cocktail, four parts water to one part sugar, boil it and cool it and fill the nectar wells of my twin HummZinger feeders. Yes, hummers eat sweetness, but that does not make them sweet.
They consume on average between one and three times their weight in nectar daily, usually obtained from flowers, not feeders. They can juice up to one thousand blossoms a day. (In fact, one way the HBSG determines the age of hummers is by examining the bills to see how much the grooves have been worn down by friction.) And almost any brightly colored flower will do. Unlike that other beloved migrant, the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars sup only on increasingly-difficult-to-find milkweed, hummers are promiscuous. They’ll press their long, forked tongues deep into the throats of beach rosemary, yellow jessamine, Japanese honeysuckle, lyre-lead sage, red buckeye, coral honeysuckle, coral bean, wild azaleas, fire pink, scarlet gilia, and tulip poplar trees. They soulkiss those flowers, their cheeks freckling with pollen, which they shamelessly smear into the face of the next floozy flower. Some HBSG members claim that, as pollinators, rubythroats are ten times more effective than bees.
Hummingbirds are much more than merely small (though the bee hummingbird is the smallest bird on Earth, and I’ve seen a photo of one perched quite commodiously on a pencil’s eraser). And they are much more than merely beautiful (though they are that; the first Spanish explorers called them joyas voladoras, flying jewels. In fact, they’re compared to jewels so often that hummingbird aviaries in zoos throughout the world are known as “jewel rooms”).
They are also unique in startling ways. They’re fast—they have the most rapid wingbeat of all birds, reportedly up to two hundred beats per second, and reliably to eighty per second. Their flight muscles make up 30 percent of their weight. They can fly up to sixty miles per hour during courtship dives. They’re smart—they have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all birds, 4. 2 percent of their total body weight. And they’re hugely kinetic—they have the greatest relative energy output and greatest heart-to-body ratio of any warm-blooded animal. They’re dexterous—they’re the only birds that can rotate their wings in a circle, so they alone can fly forward, backward, up, down, and sideways, as well as hover, and even, for short distances, fly upside down. (The logo of the American Helicopter Society is the hummingbird.) And, lastly, they’re efficient. Although their metabolism is a hundred times an elephant’s, they’re among the few birds that can enter the trance-like state called torpor, come evening, in which they perch on a branch, fluff their feathers, slow the rate of their heart and breath, and lower their temperature, to conserve energy.
Photo: Mike Baird
To read the rest of this article, please visit our online store to purchase a copy of the issue or order a subscription.