For the Birds Radio Program: Alexander Skutch's Hummingbirds
Alexander Skutch’s book, The Life of Hummingbirds is filled with fascinating information about hummers, including some charming stories.
Bird stories are seldom as heartwarming as Lassie, but occasionally the bond between a human and a bird is so special that it could be the subject of a big-time movie. One can easily imagine a loving bond created between a person and a sweet bird–a chickadee or robin, perhaps, but it’s harder to picture a feisty and pugnacious little hummingbird developing an abiding love for a person.
Alexander Skutch, a prominent ornithologist who makes his home in Costa Rica, tells a lovely story in The Life of the Hummingbird. He first notes:
[The] social impulses [of hummingbirds] are minimal, and except in a few species, their association with a partner of the opposite sex lasts only long enough to ensure that the eggs will be fertilized. How unexpected, then, to discover that at least some hummingbirds are capable of responding to the friendship of the man or woman who provides sweet nourishment for them.
During the year that the artist Arthur Fitzpatrick lay sick in a California sanatorium, he had a feeder hung outside his bedroom window, where he could watch the feathered visitors. After the usual skirmishing, a male Rufous Hummingbird won firm possession of it as his “feeding territory” and spent much of his time there, sipping syrup and chasing away intruders.
The presence of a creature so brilliant and full of vitality, so indomitable in the defense of his feeder, cheered the invalid, gave him an outside interest, and hastened his recovery. When at last Fitzpatrick was permitted to go outside in a wheelchair, the rufous left the feeder to zoom around his benefactor’s head, then poise in front of each lens of his eyeglasses as though in friendly greeting. Even when the glasses were removed, the hummingbird hovered before the man’s eyes; it was not his own reflection in the spectacles that attracted him. When the convalescent finally returned home in a car, the rufous somehow followed to his house, eight miles away.
Then, to build up his strength, the artist began daily walks, on which the hummingbird always accompanied his human friend, flying ahead and perching until the slower pedestrian caught up. Observant and curious, the rufous, by hovering before whatever interested him, called his companion’s attention to much that, alone, he might have overlooked; once a family of quail chicks with their strutting parents, once seven baby skunks, once a large rattlesnake half-hidden in the path.
After his full recovery, Fitzpatrick returned to his work in the city, and a month passed before he could revisit the mountains. Yet seconds after he alighted from his car, the rufous was there, whizzing around his head and dancing back and forth before his glasses… The remarkable part of this story is that the rufous was apparently not fed on his walks with the artist, although he doubtless visited flowers and caught insects along the way. He seemed to accompany the man because he liked his company.