For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbird vs. Kestrel

Original Air Date: Sept. 4, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Aug. 6, 2021; Sept. 23, 2019; Aug. 17, 2010; Sept. 24, 2008; Aug. 21, 2007; Aug. 24, 2001

Laura saw a thrilling encounter between a hummingbird and a kestrel and wondered what makes a tiny hummingbird take on a much larger predator? (Definitely from fall 2000)

Duration: 4′13″


One of the great joys of my life is watching hawks wend their way through the skies along Hawk Ridge every autumn. A lot of people go up there hoping to see hawks they’ve never seen before. I’ve been going up there for 19 years now so seeing lifers is not very likely, but that doesn’t mean birding at Hawk Ridge gets boring.

Last week, for instance, I watched two kestrels overhead. They found a thermal and were circling on delicate, slender wings that gleamed against the soft blue afternoon sky. That was a lovely sight—the kind that makes my heart swell. Even Microsoft’s grammar check knows that heart-swelling is a cliché, but watching those kestrels dancing on the wind, I really did felt my chest grow tighter and can’t think of a better explanation. It was a genuinely stirring and lovely thing to see at such close range, and then, as I watched through my binoculars, suddenly in zipped a tiny hummingbird who started dive-bombing the falcons. Kestrels weigh about 4 ounces, and a hummer’s tenth-of-an-ounce body weighs only about 2 ½ percent of that. By some calculations, that isn’t even significant, but the kestrels obviously noticed. With every strike by the hummer, they recoiled and darted away. The feisty hummer kept at it for over 5 minutes while the kestrels kept up their evasive action. Kestrels take prey as small as little dragonflies, so the hummer would have been a fine little snack for one of them, but I noticed how carefully the hummer stayed above them, out of range of those talons. The hummer had thousands of miles to travel and was operating on a tight energy budget, so taking time out of its busy schedule to take on two kestrels who otherwise would have ignored it was either delightfully whimsical or very stupid.

One time in Port Wing, Wisconsin, I saw a hummer repeatedly dive-bomb a Bald Eagle. By my calculations, a hummer weighs only six-one-hundredths of one percent of an eagle’s weight. My son Joe pointed out that a needle weighs an even smaller percentage of our human weight, yet when we get stuck by one, we still care. But a hummingbird’s beak is hardly as sharp as a needle, nor can it penetrate an eagle’s thick outer feathers as well as a needle can get to our skin, and I really don’t think the eagle noticed the little twerp.

The question to me is, why would a hummingbird bother to attack an eagle? The eagle posed even less danger to it than the kestrels posed to the hummer I watched at Hawk Ridge. I think there’s something human-like in taking on a monumental task like that just to do it, like climbing Everest or jumping out of an airplane with a parachute or competing in the Olympics. It may be for the sheer physical exuberance, or the sense of fun, or to master something deep inside, or maybe it’s just that the hummer is like that silly old ant who thought he’d move a rubber tree plant, ‘cause he had high hopes. But whatever it is that makes a hummingbird take on two kestrels, or a bald eagle, seems human in both its pointlessness and in its feistiness. And that combination of ambition and spunk are what make hummingbirds seem to me to be somehow noble.

So I may not see new birds at Hawk Ridge, but the everyday birds do plenty to stir my imagination and my heart. Our everyday world is filled with lovely little experiences like this. All we have to do is pull out a pair of binoculars and open the doors to our eyes and imaginations for unexpected and wonderful visions to come pouring in.