The idea of hummingbirds

These Idleposts are rapidly descending into a dream journal, in which the dregs of night from one day become the fresh material for the morrow. Birding comes into this, too, and hummingbirds are among the littlest, so small that I haven’t actually seen one in waking life for several years now. But they are easily discouraged by our northern climate, and only three species — rumours of four — ever make it to the Greater Parkdale Area (and those among the plainest looking). Or rather, past the GPA into “cottage country,” farther north, for I’ve never seen even one in the city.

In my slumbers of the night before last, I had “awakened” to discover the High Doganate full of them. One had lodged in my back trouser pocket, and I was struggling to free, without harming him. More, I was panicked because, I recalled, it is illegal to keep hummingbirds as caged pets in Ontario. (“But who said they were caged, officer?”) Nanny State might suddenly break in and bust them all. Along with me, for all I could expect. Too, I feared that with so many hummingbirds humming about, the chance one might get out the hall door and be trapped in a stairwell concerned me deeply. They need feeding every few minutes, you know. Alas, the genuine bird-lover must be more laid back; but darn if I wasn’t totally out of wingless fruitflies.

Well, perhaps I should explain about those. Most hummingbirds love them, in the culinary way. But they are more trouble to raise, as pet food, than gentle reader might think. A small jar of banana-flavoured infant moosh from your nearest baby-food store can launch a fair colony. But when confined they suddenly start breeding wingless, and shrink in average size. Your hummingbirds will still take them, I allow. Released, they soon start sprouting wings again, and bulk up a bit. The hummingbirds like them better that way. (And they can’t just live on sugar, any more than we can.)

Most fruitfly-gobbling hummingbirds can eat hundreds of these even smaller critters every day. They may be little batteries of energy, but they (the hummingbirds) need frequently to recharge. That is why it is so odd that one species (I’ve forgotten which) follows a migration route from Central America to Florida that involves continuous flight over five hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico. This is of course, like so many things that happen daily in nature, that are quite impossible, and no one, not even Alexander Skutch has figured how they do it — although he did observe them truly pigging out before they departed. (Give up, gentle reader: for doubled in weight, they then present an insuperable aerodynamic problem.)

Yes, nature is full of stuff like that. We might smoak the trick, in one case or another. But in the course of discovery we are apt also to find a hundred other gobsmacking tricks, within design complexities formidably layered. (Yes, you heard me right, gentle reader: I wrote “design.” But not, “intelligent design,” because the works of God are infinitely beyond mere smart.)

That Skutch I mentioned (1904–2004), my hero among ornithologists, though his style gets hippiesque at times, was a great hummingbird enthusiast, having a selection of many more species to watch in the obscure jungle valley that was his own habitat in Costa Rica for much of the twentieth century. In one of his works (alas misplaced years ago) he describes their conventions in choral song. Not only different species, but different tribes, had, to his direct observation (he had some musical training, too), “evolved” wonderful systems of plainsong and counterpoint. Skutch was a great chronicler of things done in nature, especially by birds, that confer no survival advantages, whatever. Indeed, many of their joyful little games are rather the opposite; but so much fun that the birds just wing it anyway. Humans, by comparison, are probably much more averse to risk.

Skutch described, from his tireless self-concealments in shore and forest “blinds,” shockingly unexpected examples of inter-species cooperation, to that survivalist end, also. He found birds looking out for other species’ predators, and sounding warnings when they appeared. (Themselves being at no risk from the predator in question.) He watched them combine in “multicultural” migratory groups, to benefit from each other’s sensory specializations. He saw them bring comfort and food to each other’s injured. Of course, some couldn’t be bothered to offer any help; but it’s the same with humans.

And sometimes they egg-sit each other’s nests; or bring food they don’t themselves eat to feed their neighbour’s young; or mind them while their mommies are out shopping. And rather more than that. Our mental picture of nature “red in tooth and claw” is highly selective. Most of what we find in nature, if we look intently, is cooperation. Even creatures who sometimes eat each other will be found in affectionate relations — birds of prey, for instance, protecting the song birds in their own territories, from other birds of prey who don’t know them personally.

Skutch is a fine source, too, on avian aesthetics. They seem to enjoy each other’s songs, and often try to mimic or join in. Species at large, but also individuals, develop partialities to colours, shades, textures, compositions. (I had a purple finch on my balconata this last summer who was studying to become an art historian. He became quite censorious when a seed dish was set out for him, of a new colour. Clearly, he was offended by loud cobalt green, preferring ivory and off-white in a ceramic.)

“Proper” academic ornithologists often wondered if Skutch had all his marbles correctly sorted, but generally they had less field experience, by a factor of more than one order of magnitude. What bugged them most was his seeming indifference to (exhaustively pointless) statistical studies. He preferred careful observation, which the academics consider to be “unscientific.” Instead they do “experiments” on their captives, often sick and cruel.

Skutch did, however, scatter evidence of prodigious reading through all of his hundreds of papers and books, which included comprehensive “life studies” of more kinds of birds than, I should think, by any other animal born human. One might go to his volume on The Life of Hummingbirds (1980-ish) to discover rather more than I will ever offer on the mind-scoffing range of hummingbird behaviour. And that book was only a light overview of a topic he pursued through many large, thickly-printed, formal tomes in which he went, case by case, into much greater detail about his Costa Rican feathered friends. (An ideal observation post, because such an extraordinary variety of birds pass through, in the course of their hemispheric migrations.)

Ah yes, physiological and behavioural “adaptations,” as the Darwinoids call them. … Skutch, incidentally, never wasted an afternoon, contradicting these purveyors of dull pseudo-science. He was too busy with his birds. What he observed was sufficient contradiction.

Now, I don’t think I observed very much in my dream, my mind being occupied only with “the idea of hummingbirds.” But I think that was a wonderful idea, in the mind of God.