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Stories

Duck

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In an earlier essay called Waiting With Beaver I said that beaver appear to be rather placid creatures.  If that is so, hummingbirds seem quite the opposite.  They seem absolutely frantic, and metabolically they are.  Hummingbirds have the highest metabolic rate of any animal, and their behavior shows it.  Whenever you are around them you’ll want to hold on to your hats.  If there are several of them swirling about it gives you the same sensation as being close to a bunch of wasps.  The inclination to duck, and flail your arms is nearly irresistible.

_IGP3672Early summer is usually a time of moderate activity around my two hummingbird feeders.  The birds remain somewhat self-contained after their sexual wars have concluded, and the eggs are in the nest.  Large numbers of wildflowers are in bloom during June and July so food is unlimited, and the birds make casual visits to the feeders, but seem less than voracious in their desire for my contributions to their well-being.  This summer seemed so slow that when one of the feeders fell apart after many years of service I decided not replace it.  There seemed little demand for two feeders.

Then in late July I noticed a flash of light around the remaining feeder as I walked through the living room.  I stopped, and went to investigate.  It was a pinwheel of hummingbirds spinning around the feeder.  The normal contingent of Calliope Hummingbirds who make their summer home in the bushes around the house had been joined by four or five Rufous Hummingbirds.  They nest god-knows-where, but always arrive at the feeders around the first of August.  This year I had, for some reason, figured the show was over before it even began.  I was wrong.  I went to town to buy another feeder.

Calliopes are the smallest hummingbirds found in North America north of the Mexican border.  Small is relative when one is talking about hummingbirds, I know, but Calliopes are indeed noticeably small, even when there are no other hummingbirds around with which to compare them.  Does a couple of grams sound small?  That’s about what an adult Calliope weighs.  There are roughly twenty-eight grams in an ounce.  To put it in perspective, you could mail a bunch of Calliopes to anyplace in the United States for the cost of a first-class stamp.

What they lack in size, however, they make up for in assertiveness, if not belligerence.  They seem fearless, though that is not precisely so.  Like any animal they have their limits.   They are skittish by nature, but quickly adapt to what they perceive as safe surroundings.  Once I kept a feeder outside a picture window which did not open.  I had to crawl up a ladder to retrieve the feeder when it was empty, bring it into the kitchen to clean and fill it, and then go back up the ladder to hang it again.  From the back door to the window, a distance of fifteen feet, the birds would land on the feeder and begin to drink as I walked along.  It was like going for a walk with a couple of dogs on a leash.  I felt like I was just out taking my birds for stroll.

Rufous Hummingbirds are markedly larger than Calliopes.  They weigh something between three and four grams, which is not enough to break any scales, but still considerably larger than Calliopes.  They, too, are aggressive, and with a dozen or more birds of both species trying to feed at the same feeder it is hard for me to imagine how any of them get any food at all.  As soon as one lands on or hovers near the feeder another swoops in to drive it away.  This happens over and over hundreds of times a day.  It is this constant repetition of chase and be chased that gives one the impression of a pinwheel whirling around the feeder.

One who has just been chased off by another may fly into the bushes twenty feet away, or land on one of the raspberry canes beneath the feeder.  It is biding its time, I assume, waiting for a chance to slip in to grab a quick bite.  There must be some pecking order in play here, but in the hodgepodge of spinning birds it is difficult to find any semblance of order.  Since there are two feeders one might think the birds would split up in order to feed more comfortably at one feeder or another.  Why they wish to cluster around one feeder at a time, I cannot tell.  Perhaps there is some imitative factor at play here.  Nonetheless, these critters manage to consume two cups of liquid every day.  Who gets what I do not know.

In terms of entertainment watching beaver wander around is like watching people read in a library.  To be in the midst of a dozen competing hummingbirds is like being at a demolition derby.  Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and hummingbirds gotta raise hell with each other all the time.  They are pretty good entertainment.  Hummingbird feeders sell well.

The physical and chemical processes that maintain any critter’s life are called, collectively, metabolism.  When your metabolism ceases to function you are dead.  Hummingbirds with their tiny bodies and high levels of activity have metabolic rates maybe a dozen times that of, let’s say a crow, and, I have read, a hundred times that of an elephant.  Small animals have proportionately larger areas of surface through which heat is lost compared with something as large as a moose.  A moose, which has a large volume of body mass relative to its surface area, becomes uncomfortably warm in winter temperatures above thirty degrees Fahrenheit.  A hummingbird is dangerously cold and in trouble at thirty degrees any time of year.

To stay alive, hummingbirds have to guzzle nearly their own weight in nectar each day.  In times of stress, such as when they need to bulk up for the long journey south in the fall, they seem particularly ravenous, and no doubt this accounts for the frenzy of activity around my house for most of the month of August.  The levels of assertiveness they display are the result of needs that only they know.  Not only do they have to add some weight for future use, they need to use an enormous amount of energy in obtaining food to start with.  A hovering hummingbird uses energy at roughly seven to eight times the resting rate.  The constant bickering and chasing cannot help.  Nothing a hummingbird does when it is not at rest seems particularly cost effective.

A lot of the time it seems likely they’re just looking for trouble.  Squabbling for the fun of it.  It’s hard not to wonder why they don’t try to get along better.  Looks to me like they need a little civilization so they can work things out to everyone’s advantage.  Watching them for long periods of time is wearing.  After a while it can make you nervous.

Fortunately for my emotional stability hummingbirds do not feed constantly.  After feeding for five to ten minutes they disappear into the bushes somewhere to rest.  During this period of time they are not only taking a break from the rigors of finding fuel for their demanding metabolic needs.  They are also emptying their crops, the specially modified parts of the digestive system that store food immediately after it is consumed, and passing the fluids on to the rest of the digestive system where the sugars will be removed.  In a sense, hummingbirds are never doing nothing.  They are only using less energy when at rest.  This, of course, is true of any animal.

I am glad the hummingbirds take these breaks.  Otherwise I am inclined to waste too much time watching their antics when I should be doing something more productive.  Yesterday, for example, my neighbor stopped in to visit as he does once or twice a day when he is working around here.  We were hanging out in the kitchen drinking coffee, and, naturally, watching the hummingbirds chase one another in circles around the feeder outside the window.

The circus was progressing normally enough as we watched from four feet away.  A female Calliope had put the run on a couple of larger Rufous ladies, and was busy sucking up a quick snack before trouble arrived.  Which it did in the form of a small black and yellow wasp about half-an-inch in length.  This was not what the bird wanted to see apparently, for she backed out of the feeder immediately, and hovered a couple of inches away watching the wasp take a drink from the fountain she had just left.  She made an attempt to drive the wasp away, but it  flew into her face, and she was gone quicker than we could see.

The wasp resumed feeding while the hummingbird hovered a couple of feet away.  Three more times she tried to drive the wasp off with no success, and finally settled on another feeding tube to which the wasp immediately flew, and drove her away again.  She was so distraught at this point that she wound up flying through an open window onto the back porch, and could not find her way out again.  We had to go out to the porch, take her in hand, and release her out the open window.  The tiniest of North American birds had met her match in an even tinier bug.

“Well,” I said, “That was pretty entertaining, but I guess we’ve wasted enough time.  I’ve got some stuff to finish up.”

“Yup,” he replied. “I better go get some bales picked up, and hauled down the road.  See ya.”

He walked out the back door, then stopped, turned around, and said “You know, it’s a funny thing, wasting time like this.  Sometimes it’s the best thing a man can do.”

“That’s for sure, I replied.  “I’ll keep the feeders full.  See you tomorrow.”

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