Our Neighbors, the Hummingbirds

You’re right, it’s not my photo. I could come nowhere near the skill to photograph that magnificent being
–an Anna’s hummingbird in flight..

Our neighbors, the hummingbirds, have decamped. More than a week has passed with no noticeable visits, and sugar water in our feeder is stuck at one level and growing staler by the hour. No good-byes? Didn’t our friendship mean anything? Was it all sham, that wintertime companionship, just for a free handout of sugar water?

Their feeder got attached to our fifth-floor living room window around the first of November last year. Quickly, tiny, gray birds—we’re on the shaded side of our building—homed in on that bright red cover, and for four and a half months, entertained us almost constantly in daylight hours as long as we provided the sugar water that fueled their flights, which meant a new supply of water about every other day.

There were two I imagined I recognized as they visited many times every day, one very small who always fed on the right side of the feeder and whom we addressed as “she,” and who after every swallow did a serious wing flutter before settling down for another drink, and the one who inevitably perched on the left side of the feeder, considerably larger, who became “he” and was far more calm as “he” drank. On Portland’s few snowy days, after I melted the snow from its lid and warmed the water a bit, it seemed the traffic at the feeder doubled, and the dive-bombing battles became more frequent. There was assuredly a pecking order, or maybe more so a territoriality, and it was enforced—or was it the superior quality of my sugar and water which I was quite careful to mix to the recommended 1:4 ratio. On the few mornings cold enough to create a topping of ice on the sugar water, I’d take the feeder inside and thaw and heat it. I guessed my attention pleased our guests, because they were soon back to feed.

Those two most familiar apparently, at times, wanted to communicate with us. Should the feeder be inside for refilling, a bird might hover near the window probably wanting us to know she was in need. At other times, she’d just hover, backward and forward, her speeding wings almost invisible, maybe simply giving us a thank-you note in her special way. Often when one of them was feeding I could approach the window within a few inches, and the bird might stop briefly to stare but did not fly away and soon got back to eating. I think we became friends, they depending upon us for food and in return, offering us entertainment and enjoyment through the damp, gray winter.

I learned something else about them when I stood quietly nearby. It had seemed plain that their long beaks reached the level of the water, but up close I saw actually that a much longer tongue extended into the water, a discovery proved true when, once only, I allowed the water to become very low until at last the bottom of the feeder was licked completely dry. And also up close, we saw their iridescent colors, usually hidden, only displayed to those allowed to get close. Our window being on the dark, northeast side of the building, in shadows during winter months, meant that our view of their colors was limited, not nearly as glorious as if we were in bright sunlight, just tiny, fragile gray birds.

Now they are gone and missed. l’d hatched the idea that they shared the instinct that drove Annette and me for 11 winters to be snowbirds, so they’ve headed north, maybe to a favorite, quiet spot in the woods on one of the San Juan islands or perhaps next door to Butchart Gardens outside Victoria, beside an abundant source of nectar and plenty of small insects to eat, to spend their summer months and raise a family or two, before instinct turns them southward, and they will be back at our feeder come November or so, but I’ve learned since that likely my theory won’t hold sugar water since Anna’s, unlike most other hummingbirds, don’t migrate.

So where have they gone? I’ll bet the promise of spring, the longer days, has stirred up their need to wander somewhere, maybe higher up on Wy’east or one of the other tall hills nearby, or maybe just to the banks of the Columbia, or nearby a lush city garden like, maybe, the Bishop’s Close, or another whose owner pays attention to the needs of nectar and pollen gatherers, which reminded me of the farm home in southwest Iowa where I was born and raised and lived until I was nearly 17 years old, where on the east side of the house grew a very old trumpet vine that had climbed to the eaves of that old two-story farmhouse and every summer produced hundreds of red, trumpet shaped flowers that brought a constant crowd of hummingbirds. So it makes all the sense in the world not to settle for sugar water when you can, with a little effort, locate a lovely garden and enjoy endless nectar varieties for a few months or, if you’re lucky, free admission to a prolific trumpet vine.

Never mind the five-year-old boy on the first day of school, 1935, nor the dog and water pump, but the prodigious trumpet vine climbing the side of the farmhouse likely with several hummingbirds at work among its flowers.

We do miss them keenly and realize how much we’ve enjoyed the shows they’ve offered us gray day by gray day. I’ll soon bring the feeder inside and clean it well and store it for the next half a year, and then I think I’ll get a second feeder so that another Anna’s or two can join our bird family next winter, and we’ll wait for the day when summer flowers have wilted, and Anna’s come back for winter nourishment and to provide us the beauty and entertainment that is our reward. We’ll wait with faith that the words of Jesus, speaking of little birds, said that “not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father,” who must enjoy hummingbirds just as much as we do.

(Would you believe that yesterday just as I was preparing to post this story, a bird perched at our feeder, drank deeply of the stale sugar water, and sped away. One of our Anna’s? Could be, but as likely, another variety, maybe only pausing on a much longer flight, or a Rufous who’ll stay for the summer. So shall I refill the feeder and wait? No, blooming trees and shrubs and flowers will be available in abundance. I’ll save my sugar water for November. Good-bye, sweet creatures, and good luck with your new family—and we’ll meet again.)

3 thoughts on “Our Neighbors, the Hummingbirds

  1. Great essay, as usual, and on the joys of birdwatching–and especially hummingbirds (although yellow finches are thrilling too). We put up a hummiingbird feeder for the first time last summer, along with a fuschia plant, and attracted several of the season. I took it down in September, not realizing that hummingbirds are here in the winter too. But also too lazy to leave the warmth of the house and go out on to the deck to service the feeder.

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  2. Jim, I love your bog “hummer” story. Just this week I three out our stale feeder water. I too have not renewed it since our wild flower gardens have burst into gorgeous bloom. Bees are plentiful but no hummers are yet seen. And so we wait. Please include me in your posts would you? gwnja9182@gmail.com      Hugs to you and Annette.

    >

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  3. We have 3 feeders hanging around the house and recently we have had several male Rufous Hummingbirds migrate in. This week a female showed up. They are so fun to watch and they make a lot of wing noise as they chase each other around between the feeders.
    Brent shot a slow motion video on his phone last year of two males fighting over a feeder. We could see what they were doing and it was bumping chests!

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