The last batch of this summer’s fledglings arrived at the feeders last week, seeming even younger and less ready than their predecessors from earlier in the summer.

To the casual observer they look like adults, but they’re clumsy and not quite certain of themselves. When they perch, they flex, and the gray-white pinfeathers that were all they had just a couple of weeks ago poke out from the inadequate cover of their new grown-up plumage.

There’s a higher than normal incidence of small feathered bodies hitting the kitchen windows as they launch themselves from bird feeders and bushes; like other adolescents, they’re still learning, still trying on this new role, and their judgment is sometimes lacking. Ready or not, they’re on their own now, finding their way in the world.

I worry especially about the newly-launched hummingbirds, still growing and looking terribly vulnerable. They’re  so young that they lack the distinctive ruby-colored feathers at their necks, but in the next few weeks they’re faced with an epic journey south and across the Gulf of Mexico. How many of them will live through it to return here next spring?

It’s hard for youngsters of all sorts, human as well as avian, to leave the nest; it’s a tougher climate than usual for both. I suspect that parental birds forget their offspring as soon as they’ve taken wing, but our nature is to worry about our children for as long as we have breath.

We have to have faith, both in our children (and, ahem, in their upbringing) and in God’s care for them. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asks Jesus in Matthew  10:29-31. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Out of the nest

Hummingbird, copyright Sarah Bryan Miller 2010, all rights reserved

Hummingbirds are a curious blend of the awe-inspiring and the appalling: tiny beauties who weigh less than a nickel and seem to defy the laws of physics with their speed and grace, their wings beating too fast to see – on average about 60 times per second for the ruby-throated birds who summer here – and their fascinating, beyond-agile maneuvers.

And then there are their aggressive impulses, which make the average Comanche warrior seem relaxed by comparison: hummers do not share well with others of their own kind, and one in my yard recently went after a bewildered fledgling finch who mistakenly thought that a hummingbird feeder might be a pleasant place to perch.

Since they first showed up last spring, right around tax time, I’ve had one male and one female as regular visitors at my backyard feeders, never at the same time, always alternating. A few weeks ago, a pair of juveniles – also one male and one female – appeared, and a most spectacular series of dogfights began.

My assumption is that the latter are the offspring of the former, although hummer homelife will never be upheld as exemplary: the male could most charitably be described as just a sperm donor. The single-mother female raises the babies on her own.

And when those babies are out of the nest, they’re really out. Both adults, in a rare display of hummingbird cooperation, have been zealous in assailing the youngsters in high-speed two-pronged attacks that send the adolescents spinning toward the trees, all of them chittering angrily at one another – or perhaps it’s the kids going after the grownups. They move too quickly to be certain.

This seems counterproductive. There is plenty of nectar (two feeders, seven apertures, no waiting), more than enough to provide many times their usual 10 calories per day per capita. Besides, all the hummers are currently gulping down the goodies at twice their usual rate, bulking up for the incredible migration that they must undertake in just a few weeks, including a 20-hour nonstop flight straight across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. Why waste the energy?

Their atavism overtakes all other instincts, though, and the aerial displays continue. The odds are that the juveniles won’t make it through their first year.

Most creatures are programmed to hoard. We humans, who have reason and philosophy to support a policy of generosity, still have to fight the urge to hang onto all available resources.

Jesus famously told his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. Known, in various wordings, as the Golden Rule, it’s a constant for lip service in civilized human societies, too rarely observed.

Scholars have long pondered how the tiny Christian movement went from obscure, persecuted cult to Official State Religion of the Roman Empire in just a few generations. In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark posited convincingly that it was because Christians actually lived their Lord’s command, thereby making a better life for all: What a concept.

In these days of economic anxiety, we revert to the hoarder model far too easily, cutting back on our giving and sharing. Jesus again: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

It hasn’t registered with the hummingbirds, but we have faith that tells us that there’s plenty of nectar to go around, and our Lord’s assurance that God’s love and generosity will never fail us.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Back to the birds

After an unseasonably warm period that had the unwary narcissus bulbs on the hillside poking up fresh green spikes, real winter settled in.

The long-term effect on my daffodils and jonquils remains to be seen, but the effects on the local avian population were immediate: there was a rush on the bird feeders.

These now number four: the (in retrospect) absurdly small one that I first bought and the family-or-flock-sized model that immediately followed it, both of them for sunflower seeds; the nyjer seed feeder for finches; and the little suspended cage that holds a slab of seedy suet.

My flock has grown considerably from the original little group of chickadees, titmice and cardinals. The regulars now include house finches in red and brown, two sweet, pert wrens, a pair of downy woodpeckers and a (comparatively enormous) red-bellied woodpecker. One day a flock of blackbirds landed with all the subtlety of a motorcycle gang; they hung around for a while, giving the little birds the skitters, and then flew off again.

I find myself setting up my work in the kitchen so I can see the songbirds as they figure out the setup, swooping in together, rushing off for no discernible reason. On the shelf under the bay window crouches an even more avid birdwatcher, Iris the Orange Menace, whose tail muscles must have strengthened considerably recently from nearly nonstop lashing. The birds pay her no mind: among the things they’ve figured out is that the cats cannot get to them.

The suet cake is gradually disappearing, entirely pitted and with eroding corners. The nyjer seeds seem to be the exclusive province of a pair of male goldfinches. The sunflower seeds disappear faster than cashews in a bowl of mixed nuts; the giant bagful in the garage will never get us through the winter.

I worry a little that I’ve set up a welfare state for birds; what did they do before we opened an all-you-can-eat buffet? Some naturalists, after all, condemn any feeding of wild creatures, which gets in the way of Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

But we shape the world with every choice we make, with everything we do or don’t do. Horses survived even though deer are more adapted to their territory, because human beings found them useful; grains produce more bounteously after millennia of deliberate selection. I choose to feed songbirds: I hope to help beauty.

— sbm

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