We have been keeping vigil out our back window for the first sign of spring. Of course, the season officially arrives in March, and the traditional harbingers are all around. The robins are building their nests. The lovely redbud tree outside our kitchen window is in its glory. The sycamore trees, the gingko, and the red maple have leafed out, and the grass has already been mowed three or four times.
However, spring did not make its formal arrival at our humble abode until the last day of April. That’s when the Archilochus Colubris came calling, all 1/8 ounce of him. Don’t let the fancy Latin name fool you. You know him as the hummingbird. He gets his name from the sound made by the incredibly fast beating of his wings (up to 80 times per second.) Sometimes all we see of him is a blur, but when he hovers for a moment over a flower or suddenly stops in mid-air, we are rewarded with a glimpse of something beautiful. Poet Harry Kemp said the hummingbird “glitters...above the flower bed, over the lawn...a flashing dip and it is gone...and all it lends to the eye is this-- a sunbeam giving the air a kiss.”
Our winged sunbeams are just in from an amazing 2000-mile journey from their winter home in Central America. If they are a bit tuckered out, they did not show it the day they arrived at our feeder, diving in and out and darting up and down.
The hummingbird is one of God’s most remarkable creations. It has been described as a fairy in a fighter jet. Only about 3 inches long, it is a powerhouse of aerodynamics. The hummer’s heart beats 1200 times a minute. It can fly forward, backward, and almost upside down, darting at speeds of 50 mph and stopping on a dime. It can hover like a tiny helicopter and shoot 60 feet straight up into the air. Small but mighty, the hummingbird can drive off birds 100 times their size by simply outmaneuvering them.
These tiny flying miracles had a perfect GPS system on board eons before Cadillac introduced it to humans. Not only do they know the way back and forth between here and Central America, they can remember flower patches and feeders in route. The birds that arrived at our feeder this season are probably the very same ones we hosted last year.
We are flattered that they have chosen our place to spend their summers. I must admit that my wife tries to be the perfect hostess. She carefully prepares the “nectar” for the feeder by cooking a mixture of sugar and water to a gentle boil. Her recipe is popular with the customers, and sometimes the demand exceeds the supply in only hours. Then she prepares a fresh batch. Hummingbirds feed on flowers and insects, too. They need a lot of fuel for their high-torque metabolism. The typical hummer demands about 10,000 calories of energy a day. If a human required an equal amount for his size, he would have to gobble up 200,000 calories daily. That’s about 170 pounds of hamburger.
People may be surprised to see perches mounted on the hummingbird feeders. The common belief is that the little birds seldom stop to rest. Not true. Although they seem to be in perpetual motion, they actually spend about 80 percent of the time perched on a twig or leaf stem. By the way, anyone who plans to build a hummingbird house might as well forget about it. They will never move in, preferring to make their home in the great outdoors.
We will take good care of our busy little visitors throughout the summer. We know that, come September, they will flutter past our window one last time before going south for the winter. My wife watches the feeder even more closely then. She knows they will need a lot of energy for the trip. At one point on the journey, they fly over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a 500-mile stretch, demanding over 18 hours of non-stop flight. How they do it is hard for us to fathom. But we need not think about their departure now. They just got here, and we have a long, lazy summer to gaze out the window at these delightful pixies of the garden.
Pixies of Spring