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Hummingbird Wars


Near Dolores, Colorado

I am camped this morning right next to the endless rumbling roar of the west Dolores river. It is around 70 degrees. Sun sparkles on the foaming, cold, fast-moving water. Along the bank to the right, fat bees drone lovingly above the stubby golden stamina of the sunflowers. Omnipresent gnats tower lightly in their multitudes, dawdling in clouds above river and bank in the warm honeyed air, stirred slightly by an occasional cool breeze sneaking out from under the pines. All seems idyllic.

And it would be, if it weren't for the hummingbird war.

When I put the feeder out yesterday, I noticed there were lots of these guys around. Maybe a dozen, different colors. Mostly a light shimmering green, a few black with a whitish chest and throat. One had brownish-orange tail feathers you could only see as he dipped and spread them to slow for a landing.

I say landing. I never see them on the ground. Mostly they perch on nothing at all, in the middle of the air. Sometimes they rest on tiny twigs in the trees. But not for long.

My Audubon Field Guide says they never feed while perching, but these fellows never got around to reading the Guide. They are perfectly happy to perch and drink from the bright red feeder I found at the hardware store in Lake City. They seem to be attracted to red. I caught one of them trying to extract nectar from the screw holes in the lenses of my rear running lights. And he wasn't quickly discouraged.

Maybe I put too much sugar in the water, but I think these guys were hyper long before I met them.

Mostly they are tiny things, perhaps a couple of inches long. Fearless little bits of fluff. Insubstantial animate darts. Were you to snatch them out of the air, they'd vaporize into featherdust and a smear of phosphorescence on your fingers. Like lightning bugs.

If you could snatch them.

It is uncanny how quick they are. In flight they are a kind of whisper in the air, more heard than seen. Prrrrrrrt. A blur, more memory than sense.

Compared to hummingbirds, you and I are about as mobile as an adolescent redwood.

They seem to like to buzz me from behind, tickling my ears in passing, making me duck, counting coup. They are curious. One came right in the open door of the trailer, no doubt shopping for something nice in red to take home to the wife.

Often I can only catch them out of the corner of my eye, a spark of iridescence in the empty air. Maybe I saw something. Maybe not.

And then - prrrrt - there he is, a foot from my gawping face. Prrrrt. There he is again, a couple of feet to the left. Prrt. He moves in closer, and for some reason I remember the bottle of wine I had after dinner last night, and wonder just how red my eyes are this morning.

Prrrrrt. It backs off to the right. As though triangulating. The torso is perfectly still, upright between the invisible whir of wings. Suddenly there is a chill in the air. The Angel of Death might look like that, hovering immobile above the hospital bed, ready to carry off my fluttering soul like a bug in his beak.

Only bigger. Surely bigger.

I find myself blinking and swallowing, mentally murmuring a short involuntary prayer of gratitude for glasses. If it weren't for presbyopia, there wouldn't be a thing between my watery eyes and that needle-like bill but avian forebearance. And study as I might in the long moment given me, I could find no pity in those blank, black, beady little eyes. Not a bit.


Gone. Just not my day, I guess.

There were lots more of them at the feeder yesterday. Then, as the evening wore on, there were fewer, and they seemed to come in pairs. One would approach, then another would swoop down beside him. Then a sharp chirp and a tangle of wings, and off they'd go. Nobody got a drink.

After a while, I noticed that the one doing the swooping was the same little bird every time. Black wings, white chest, a nappy little triangular brown mark beneath the beak. Like a goatee. Fierce. He'd stand guard up there in the tree, giving the feeder, and occasionally me, that alternate unblinking one-eyed glare that birds specialize in. He didn't drink himself. I guess he'd had all he could hold. But nobody else was getting any if he could help it. He'd chase'em off and circle back to stand guard again.

I took him for a Republican.

Over and over again. Dive, chirp, flutter, chase, turn, perch, and watch. After a bit I went over and moved the feeder to the other end of the awning. This pissed him off, and he swooped me. Held me. Interrogated me. Let me off with a warning.

Proprietary little pest.

Then I got to reading, and eventually it got dark. I started a small fire and mostly forgot about him.

Until morning. Sitting outside over breakfast, I saw him again. Same guy, I think. Same beady eyes. Same goatee. Still in the same place, still keeping watch. Was he there all night?

Another bird approached the feeder. I waited for the swoop. Nothing. He eyed the intruder. It left, and another approached. Green back. Pretty. No swoop. What the hell? While the new one was drinking, he fluttered down, hovered a bit, and took a drink out of the opposite side. Hover and peek. Hover and peek.

Then the two of them flew off together, but it didn't look like a chase.

Did somebody declare a truce and not inform me? Did he justly get his ass whipped? Did he find an amazing unsought Grace, somewhere in the night?

It's a mystery to me. Beyond my poor power to add or detract. Honest Abe. So if there are ornithologists among you, perhaps one will help me out here.

All I can say is that there definitely was a war. And I was briefly held for observation as an enemy combatant. I never got to see a lawyer. Just a judge.

Eventually I was summarily released, and now the war appears to be over. I'm just trying to get my life back together.

In hummingbird years, decades may have gone by while I slept. Arrogant empires rose and fell. Who knows what secret negotiations may have taken place, while I dreamed of tiny drumsticks?

But I definitely must have missed something, because there's an unaccountable peace in the pines again today. The river runs right by it.


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