For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds

Original Air Date: March 20, 2002

They won’t be here for over a month, but Laura’s thinking about hummingbirds. (adapted for February 2019)

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The calendar and something stirring deep inside us are both telling us that spring is here. Every day more snow is melting, the first robins of the northland will arrive any day now, and I’m already hearing geese. The first sensations of spring are lovely, but just as a six-year-old child’s impatience for Christmas can diminish her enjoyment of Thanksgiving, so my own impatience for the richness of May diminishes my enjoyment of the promise of March. Somehow geese just don’t fit the bill when I’m hungry to see hummingbirds.

I suppose it’s fitting to be impatient waiting for hummers. These minute packets of energy and testosterone are nature’s finest tributes to impatience. Hummingbirds seldom sit down to enjoy a meal–their wings stay in high speed motion, over a hundred beats per second, even at the sweetest, most nectar-filled flower, ready and set to go on to another flower the moment this one no longer satisfies.

Male hummers are as fickle about their mates as children are with their Christmas presents. The first one may fill them with joy, but a moment later they’ve already moved on to the next package. This readiness to move on to the next flower, and the next mate, are so deeply characteristic of hummingbirds that you’d think people, who moralize many things in nature, would dislike them. But we’re as tolerant of a hummingbird’s exuberant restlessness as we are of child’s on Christmas morning.

Hummingbird have an iridescent beauty unmatched in the bird world, and their diminutive size–a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is less than a third the size of a chickadee–makes them all the more endearing. The words people use to describe hummingbirds sound like exaggerations–glowing, jewel-like, brilliant, sparkling, dazzling–yet even those words fail when a sunbeam suddenly strikes a hummingbird setting its ruby throat afire.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds lack the gaudy brilliance of the males, but somehow they are just as endearing. Like males they are constantly on the move, except when on their nest. It’s ironic that this is the only time they seem sedate and calm, when their whole bodies are seething with the heat of anticipation, their metabolism generating an abundance of body heat to hasten the day those tiny round packages will open.

Hummingbirds arrive in the northland in early May, and although the trend of earlier springs seems to hasten them on a few days earlier now than decades ago, we still can’t hope to see them before the last week of April. I see the receding snow with anticipation, and eagerly watch for the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to alight in my aspen tree, knowing that the sapsucker’s drill holes are a hummingbird’s meal ticket before flowers open up. I’ll carefully measure a quarter cup of sugar for every cup of boiling water, pour the mixture into clean feeders, and lovingly set them outside as soon as the Internet tells me that the first hummers have arrived in southern Wisconsin. Meanwhile, I’m as impatient as a small child waiting for their arrival.

Hummingbirds come at the opposite season and from the opposite direction as Santa Claus, but these tiny gifts, wrapped in Christmas colors of brilliant green and red, satisfy even more than the nicest Christmas presents, and have one great advantage over the best Christmas toys–Hummingbirds don’t need batteries.