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