The Hummingbird I Held in My Hand
By Jim Leenhouts
While I’ve had falcons on my arms and parrots on my fingers, I would wager few individuals have held any live bird cupped in their hands, let alone a Hummingbird. The experience for me is still a wonderful vivid memory of one of nature’s most tiny, colorful and brave birds that can remain motionless in flight and then quickly dart seemingly in any direction at will.
My home in Michigan is practically a tree house on its lakeside face. A heavily wooded, steep bank drops some 40 feet to the water from my lakeside porch. Tall, white, paper birch, evergreen cedars, poplars (aspens) and locust trunks can almost be touched and leaves on the branches provide overhanging cover for the porch from the summer sun. I am resting from lunch on my porch.
I didn’t see it coming and it was beyond my ear before I knew I had been “hummed”. Three or four times a year this had happened and I suspect it’s the male warning me not to come closer to his and his mate’s little practically invisible saucer nest – the size of a silver dollar so painstakingly constructed and disguised from soft, sorted, colored fibers from the poplars and old spider webs on the locusts to resemble a knot from a broken branch deep in the nearby cedar tree. The cedar leaves that never fall are a harsh hair net covering a complex entanglement of branches and numerous enough, like a chain link fence, to protect the interior and the nest from any other predator bird attacks. Squirrels and cats, I assume, retreat from the aggressive, airborne attach of a needle-like projectile, the male hummingbird, that hums as it passes swiftly through entangled branches to rush past their eyes or ears.
Before returning to give me a second lesson in his territorial dispute, I heard a rap – not unlike a single knock on a door followed by a soft thump – a golf ball dropped on a rug.
I knew instantly what had happened simply because I had heard these two connected sounds – a knock and a thump – too many times before. The hazard was my cottage windows that present a view to a bird that there is no glass barrier through the sun room even though woodpecker males will fight to exhaustion against a competitor reflected back from the very same windows. Not receiving the warning reflection, my “hummer” had hit the glass door, probably broke his neck and dropped to the porch deck. I have even had a partridge chased by a hawk slam into a window with enough force to break the double glass. I knew enough to look down under the window to search for the bird.
Although tiny, less than three inches, he was perfect. A common ruby throated, male hummingbird on the deck. I am still put off by the name, “Common”. Basically, he was light green but he glittered with thousands or millions of bright yellow and green jewels. His throat was ruby red and it too, reflected millions of minute rubies. His eyes were closed, just slits. Does the metallic glint fade if he dies?
I contemplated how to pick him up. Between my thumb and finger seemed to be much too rough for such a delicate thing. I opted for a to-be discarded postcard in the nearby kitchen as a scoop and gently moved his lifeless body over it with my finger. His head was so limp that it almost bent backwards over his body. He had to have perished in his last attempt to save his mate and with her just two, and always two, the ornithologists claim, china white eggs in her nest – all alone.
I moved him, warm to my hand, not knowing what else to do. How would I discard his body? I studied him for a long minute in my hand. He opened the eye facing into the sun. He was alone but how could he possibly recover?
I set him back very carefully back on the postcard and moved him under the roof overhang to keep the sun from blinding his open eye. I left him alone on the postcard on the chair.
Twenty minutes later, he was standing but did not recognize my presence. Nor did he appear aggressive or frightened.
Another twenty minutes and he was gone.
One week later, I installed a feeder in honor and remembrance in which I weekly add a half cup of sugar – about 800 calories – that I dissolve in warm water to fill, add a little red food color, invert it and hang it on the roof overhang that actually touches the branches of cedar tree where he and his mate had built their nest together.
I like to think the feeder is like my family cottage and ground that honors my father, mother and her parents. Perhaps that’s silly but I’ve never been hummed again.