Hummer Games: Sagas of the Black-Chinned Hummingbird
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Your relationship with hummingbirds will begin as mine did, as encounters with tiny pinpricks darting up to the hummingbird feeder, then zooming away. Seeing this for the first time leaves you awestruck, and for a while, every time after that is heightened by anticipation, watching for the little dot against the sky that will soon be in front of you.
Dots don’t remain interesting forever. It’s a good thing too, otherwise there might not be an incentive to learn more about the dots, to retain that sense of wonder. Binoculars transform the dots hovering at your feeder into hummingbirds. You might notice colors you never knew were there; that the hummingbirds don’t just zoom up to the feeder like you thought you’d been seeing, but stop a few feet from it and then edge closer in short, buzzy, bursts; you might wonder about that long, thin strand poking out of the hummingbird’s bill.
You’ve discovered that hummingbirds feed with their tongues. These very long tongues enable them to consume the nectar at the base of flowers, a key source of energy. This is made possible by small grooves running up the tongue to the mouth that transports fluid via capillary action, the “physical force that causes fluids to rise in small-diameter tubes” (Sibley). Tongue extension is controlled by the hummer’s hyoid apparatus, “a forked structure made of a number of small bones and connected muscles that wraps around the back of the skull” (Sibley). This is very efficient: Black-Chinned Hummingbirds extend their tongue about 13-17 licks per second, retracting the tongue and transferring nectar into the mouth each time (Black-chinned Hummingbird, Cornell).
There’s so much more that goes into just that one moment of a dot at your feeder. There’s capillary action, dozens of un-see-able wingbeats per second, and the identification of species. There’s cowardice, bravery, and the rise and fall of empires.
My relationship with hummingbirds – or “hummers,” as those people who fancy themselves on a more casual, intimate level know them as – began in Michigan. Identifying hummer species is easy there: there’s just the one resident, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Occasionally a migrant gets blown off course and birders from miles around pour in to see it. I missed watching the Ruby-Throats dart up to my window feeder after I moved to Tempe for college, and though I was convinced that this giant urban area couldn’t support much in the way of wildlife, I nonetheless bought a feeder.
This was the beginning, and in the beginning, it was March, and there was nothing. Only an empty hummingbird feeder that I dutifully cleaned and refilled every other day, then every evening after I wondered whether any hummingbirds were passing me up because of non-freshened sugar water. Then there was despair – as well as nothing – as I decided that the vast developed urban pit that is the greater Phoenix area would probably not house very many hummingbirds at all, and that other people with previously well-established feeders were claiming the few existing hummers’ solicitation (the bastards).
Then, about three weeks after the beginning, there was Sol. Sol was a female Anna’s Hummingbird, so named because she was solitary. This, I thought, is the only hummingbird in Phoenix, and she is mine.
Sol was not the only hummingbird in Phoenix. Within a fortnight, there were more Anna’s females. I made complicated charts for telling theses muted, plain female birds apart, then again later once males arrived.
There were some individual differences I could pick out: one had a small white tick on her shoulder, one was greyer and one was greener, and one had a bit of fluff stuck to her foot for several days. Another would come to the feeder and, instead of sticking her beak in the bright yellow hole to drink, she’d rest her beak on the plastic bottom and attempt to lap up whatever sugar water dribbled out and dried when I filled it. I christened her “Stoopid.”
The Black-Chinned Hummingbird:
A male Black-Chinned Hummingbird came in about two months after I first put up my hummingbird feeder, and immediately established dominion over the hapless Anna’s and Black-Chinned females. His favorite perch was the horizontal iron stair railing right below the feeders, which he used as a lookout to scan for approaching interlopers and as a launching pad for offensives. At the first sign of intruders at what had obviously become his feeders, he would shoot into the air like a targeted missile, pursuing the unfortunate hungry female hummers for minutes at a time. Indignant at such sexist and brutal treatment, I christened him “Asshole.” Though I planned on getting a picture of him on such an ideal and prominent perch, I was also irritated at him for disrupting the utopia that had previously existed. There was no need, I thought, to reward such behavior with pictures that might be endearing or flattering. Given the zeal with which he defended the feeders, I left him to it for a few days thinking that picture opportunities would, unfortunately, be all too frequent.
There are 338 known species of hummingbirds in the world. Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species is an impressively large manual that, true to its word, dedicates a page to every known species, which includes many of the barely known species in Central and South America. The first 20 pages also comprise a solid introduction on hummers in general, covering their evolution, colors, daily life, and seasonal behaviors.
It references the Black-Chinned Hummingbird, or Black-Chin, as “a common and adaptable species from western parts of North America”, and as a “supreme generalist” (Fogden 330).
“Generalist” species don’t depend on or require one specific feature of their environment to survive. In contrast, some species, such as some hummingbirds in Central and South America, evolved around a very specific aspect of their environment, and are known as specialists.
As “generalist” suggests, Black-Chins are a highly adaptable species of hummingbird. They can be found across diverse habitats, ranging from desert scrub, valleys, woodlands, and mountains, to urban areas (Fogden). In addition, the species is known to draw nectar from more than 90 species of plants (Black-chinned Hummingbird, Audubon).
It should come as no surprise that The International Union for Conservation of Nature (The IUCN), an organization which investigates the likelihood of species’ extinction and works towards conservation, classifies Black-Chinned Hummingbirds as Least Concern. This status encompasses “plants, fungi and animals that have been evaluated to have a low risk of extinction” (The IUCN).
But this widespread presence doesn’t necessarily translate into a brazen hummingbird. Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species also characterizes the Black-Chin as “relatively timid,” with a tendency to “be dominated by other species” (Fogden 330).
I can certainly attest to this: About two weeks after Asshole established himself, a male Anna’s Hummingbird came into the area. Recall Black-Chins’ tendency to be dominated by other species? Part of this could be attributed to how much smaller and slimmer they are than other hummingbird species in the Southwest, particularly Anna’s Hummingbirds.
Black-Chinned Hummingbirds are about 3.75 inches in length,visibly smaller than the 4.00 inch long Anna’s Hummingbird which can likewise be found throughout the Southwest and in the region’s urban areas. Black-Chins are also physically distinctive by their smaller heads and slimmer body, making them appear even smaller than the printed 3.75” would suggest. Unlike Anna’s short straight bills, Black-Chins’ bills are long and have a slight downward curve.
Asshole put up a great fight, engaging in aerial combat with his larger rival and holding his own for nearly a week. Perhaps emboldened by the arrival of a mating opportunity, the Anna’s females became less cowed and started engaging more with Asshole when he tried to push them away. I also noticed different feeder guarding tactics between Asshole and the male Anna’s (who I later named Kettner after a particularly unpleasant former classmate of mine). Asshole was still doing his targeting missile thing, shooting off after his opposition and bobbing away into the sky for minutes at a time.
I had previously silently encouraged this, as it left the feeder wide open for other hummers. Now, it was the perfect opening for Kettner to install himself as head-hummer. And unlike Asshole, he didn’t chase off intruders as far as possible. All it took was a brief charge towards the offender, or sometimes, a threatening rise off his perch accompanied by the strange, shrill territorial chortling that indicated its producer’s displeasure.
There were so many little quirks that I wish I’d watched more closely. When Asshole sped off in pursuit of other hummers, he bobbed through the air like a tiny goldfinch, like a model roller coater. Up and down, up and down in long consistent arcs until he was a tiny dot, then a tiny dot that melted into sky. When he returned to the railing after seeing the other hummer off to the next county, he would look almost pleased with himself. He’d ruffle himself up and slice his miniature beak through his poofed-up feathers, and looked to be enjoying himself immensely. Distracting endearing behaviors, I thought sourly. I imagined that he was trying to manipulate me into being ok with his conquests, and I stood firm on moral principle.
Eventually, Asshole was squeezed out of the competition. I continued to see him at the feeders during gaps in Kettner’s surveillance, but he would never again perch on his railing, and I would never get that picture. I realized later that there was nothing unfortunate about Asshole’s dominance, except that it ended all too soon.
Then I realized that I had replaced my distaste for Asshole with distaste for the bullying Anna’s, and I was confronted with the question of which one was right.
Kettner and Seahorse:
If I thought Kettner would show his fellow hummers more respect than Asshole – which I did – I was deeply mistaken.
Kettner took to the frond of a nearby palm tree as his favorite perch. Though farther away from the feeders than Asshole had been, he was able to see other hummers’ approach paths from farther away and either cut them off in midair or get an early start in ambushing them at the feeders. His streamlined guarding efforts meant that he rarely left the vicinity of the feeder.
I decided that Kettner was ruthless, and highly irritating. By this time I’d noticed the abundance of Anna’s hummingbirds vying for a spot at the feeder, and I’d decided that the Black-Chins were heroic under-birds, and my favorite species. Kettner pushed them off with impunity. If only there was a guiding ethical force behind nature that would police its subjects and find Kettner obstructive enough to scoop up in a giant net and relocate far, far away.
But the “nature must take its course” adage comes to mind here, as does The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which makes it a federal crime to trap, hold, capture, or control in any kind of captivity any listed migratory bird species – including hummingbirds (Migratory). So I contented myself with rewriting the laws of the universe inside my head and waited for the next leadership change.
Kettner lasted about a month before his replacement came to power. By this time, there was a virtual colony of hummingbirds all around my apartment complex – several male Anna’s, about a dozen unidentifiable females, and two male Black-Chins: Asshole and another personal favorite, Seahorse.
Serious birder-watchers are often able to get no more than a glance at a bird and know immediately what it is. This is because birds species have distinctive physical features, ranges, movement patterns, flight styles, and behaviors. One of these on its own in one species might be similar to another species, but it’s the combination of all of these together that creates the overall profile of the bird – in birding circles, termed the “jizz.”
One behavioral characteristic that sets the Black-Chin apart from the Anna’a is the tail. When hovering in midair, the Black-Chin often wags it – not back and forth like a dog, but up and down. Like a seahorse.
It turns out that this is a characteristic common to Black-Chins. For all I know, this hummer I now called Seahorse could be multiple Black-Chins, all pumping their tails because that’s what Black-Chins do. I’ve seen other Black-Chins do it, though surprisingly, this has only convinced me that I’m right in my identification of Seahorse as a single hummer. Asshole does small, wimpy tail pumps. The Black-Chins I’ve seen on birding trips around Arizona seem to have reasonably-sized, controlled tail pumps. Seahorse is the only Black-Chinned I’ve seen, or think I’ve seen, that looks for all the world like he should be propelling himself through the sea.
It’s not just immersing yourself in the world around your feeder that can make your speeding dots come to life. I learned the most about my resident hummingbirds by going out and discovering their world. Part of what makes birding so much fun is that it forces you to stand still and watch, to pick up on minute changes around you, to attune yourself to even the most subtle input. On one particular early morning outing, I noticed an odd-looking bump on a tree branch from across the parking lot. Training my binoculars on it, I realized it was a hummingbird. A tiny little female hummer, happily preening her feathers. Preening hummingbirds pouf themselves up so that they look like adorable balls of feather, and strike their beaks through their wings. It’s an unexpectedly violent-looking maneuver for a bird typically associated with daintiness and grace. Of course, anyone who watches hummers – particularly the angry clumps of airborne hummingbirds attempting to spear each other on their beaks – should already be disillusioned of that notion.
There are complications of walking around with binoculars in an apartment complex, peering up at trees which, for the sake of privacy, are usually planted in front of windows. Going out early in the morning to look at birds – 5am early – helps you avoid awkward questions and encounters, and as a bonus, it’s the time of day when birds are most active.
This little outing is where I captured a second female hummer feeding from some flowers, and it was another batch of photos that convinced me I could be world-famous.
There’s a tree just outside of my bedroom window, a tree that my desk looks out on, which provides me with the feeling that I’m not trapped in a giant cement pit. It’s a tree that I’ve grown immensely fond of, and which the hummingbirds have put to practical use. There is nothing particularly special about this tree, as one can argue that there’s something special about every tree. Like other trees one could become acquainted with, this is a tree that grounds life around it. But because this particular tree grounds the life that is central to this story, it is immensely special, and shall henceforth be known as The Tree.
There is no better way to describe my discovery of this than to say how immensely shocking it is to be working on your computer, notice movement or color in your peripheral vision, look up, and see a hummingbird preening itself on a twig, not ten feet from you.
Over the course of watching The Tree, I learned that a number of my hummingbirds return to its branches after drinking at my feeders. I watched them disappear into the tree canopy over and over again in the spring, and I learned that somewhere inside its branches were nests.
The praying mantis, lizards, snakes, owls, and other birds of prey are all natural predators that can catch hummingbirds unawares, pluck them off of perches, or devour them in the night. A wider array of predators can catch chicks and eat eggs, including bats, rodents, and larger birds (About Hummingbirds). Cats are also a leading cause of bird deaths, and my apartment complex has plenty. They tend to mate on nights when I have major assignments due.
But my greatest fear during the spring and summer was not a cat swallowing hummer nests whole, or a snake picking one off a perch.
My apartment complex suffers from an overzealous landscaping team. Every month they come through and hack off the tops of bushes, or flowering shrubs so that nothing more than perfectly pruned curves, or artfully arranges sticks, remains. They removed completely a large old tree that had died, as well as my hopes of seeing any woodpeckers or nuthatches creeping up and down its trunk indulging in insects.
I imagined The Tree outside my window protruding a shoot that conflicted with whatever modern aesthetic vision chopped up the bushes and flowers. I imagined The Tree would eventually be thought untidy. I hoped beyond hope that this would not happen until the baby hummingbirds – in the nests, in The Tree – had fledged.
Feeding Time: Afternoon
During the scorching Arizona day, hummingbird feeder activity is limited to the dominant hummer perched around his prize – not usually feeding from it, but doing his damnedest to make sure no one else gets to. Other hummers that come in to feed are promptly chased away. Occasionally, the dominant hummer might chase someone away so enthusiastically that he leaves the feeders unguarded for the briefest window of time.
If I were a hummingbird, I would lie in wait for these windows, swoop in, and quickly score my fill of sugar water. My abundant calories would allow me to raise dozens of broods of hummingbirds, all of whom would inherit my wiliness. Eventually, there would be legions of my offspring, poised to take over the world. At least, this is how I imagine it would work whenever I witness this happen. If I really were a hummingbird, I would likely take on the characteristics of one, meaning that I would have a very tiny brain.
Tiny brains with inadequate reasoning capabilities is the only explanation I can come up with for why the other hummingbirds in the area don’t seize these unguarded opportunities more effectively. Often, the feeder sits entirely vacant for the dominant male’s return.
You’d think with the ability to extend your tongue multiple times per second that you’d be a little bolder seizing feeding opportunities. Not my hummingbirds. If one happens to be passing during a gap in surveillance, it hovers in midair for a moment, staring at the unguarded feeder as if in disbelief. It comes towards it a few yards at a time until it stops right next to the beak opening. It stares around, shocked, perhaps wondering why it hasn’t been chased off yet, and whether that means something’s wrong. Just as it decides it’s safe and that it might as well snatch a drink, the dominant male returns with a furious buzzing of wings and the hapless subordinate flees for safety, learning entirely the wrong lesson from the experience.
Thankfully their ability to feed isn’t limited to the feeder. Though hummingbirds in general are commonly associated with flowers and nectar – and regularly visit them – most also eat insects. Black-Chins are no exception, gleaning insects from flowers, while airborne, and from the webs of spiders. And of course, they will also visit hummingbird feeders for sugar water, which should be 1 cup of sugar dissolved in 4 cups water without artificial food coloring.
Daytime feeding patterns at the feeder are rather depressing to witness, much like watching your favorite football team lose miserably to the opposition. No matter how loudly you yell ideas for improvement at the screen, they won’t understand you, and watching them make all the wrong choices is only worsened by you knowing exactly how to fix everything.
Kettner’s replacement was another Anna’s male. I’ve mentioned several hummers that I can identify by physical and behavioral differences: Seahorse, Asshole, Stoopid.
This new Anna’s male was immediately recognizable by his warped bill. After watching him for several days, I determined that the upper and lower mandibles bent up and down at the ends respectively, resulting in his beak never fully being closed. This change in leadership coincided with a run of good luck with my camera.
On some occasions, my success at photo-capturing my hummers is enough that I feel I should drop out of school immediately and seek my fortune in field work for magazines. For every one of these accidental miracles however, there are dozens of blurs, hummingbirds indistinguishable from stuffed toys or fluffy bees, pieces of crap that usually come right at the heels of days filled with successful pictures that, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to replicate.
The new Anna’s male’s quirk made for some highly amusing photos, not to mention those that allowed me to examine his bill carefully. After determining that he was not just panting, as birds and animals tend to do in temperatures over one hundred degrees, I named him Deformo.
His adorable-ness softened my impulse to be angry with him, as once again an Anna’s Hummingbird had taken over. I fancied myself learned and cultured; unique among humans, I could recognize Deformo’s merits as well as his drawbacks and appreciate them both.
Life from The Tree:
One early morning outing concluded with me walking underneath The Tree. For some undefinable reason, similar to the one that made me curious about the minuscule bump across the parking lot weeks earlier, I looked up. There was a small hummingbird sitting on a lower branch. It was petite, not at all like the sturdy Anna’s, it had a grey tinge to it, and its throat was plain. We stared at each other.
“You’re a juvie Black-Chinned,” I told it incredulously.
Somehow through my shock and delight, I got off a few slightly-blurred pictures. It didn’t like that. It flew away.
I felt a great sense of triumph in seeing it, what I sincerely hoped was a fledged baby hummingbird. If maintenance tackled The Tree, they would be able to escape.
I discovered through scanning its branches for relaxing hummingbirds that other species had made use of The Tree. There were two or three Swallowtail Butterflies that occasionally circled its canopy. There was a great black wasp, large enough for me to mistake for a hummingbird flying by, if not for their different flight patterns. There was a family of sparrows that passed through during the fall, which I wanted very badly to identify. At that point in the semester, however, there was only time to do this during the day. I eventually vacated my sparrow stake-out due to the alarming number of passersby giving me suspicious looks.
My relief that the baby hummingbirds had fledged turned once more to concern at the end of the summer. I wondered, what with the good weather and availability of food, if my hummers might try for another brood. I took to scanning the tree with my binoculars, trying to find the nests. It was a fruitless exercise: hummingbird nests are no larger than a quarter, and unlike bumps on tree trunks grooming themselves, they don’t move.
The hummingbirds were oblivious to my worries: Deformo had a stable reign, longer than any of his predecessors’. I could still catch glimpses of my Black-Chins at the feeders in the evenings, which hopefully included the juvenile I encountered in The Tree.
I also saw a female Anna’s juvie around that time, and examining her closely through my binoculars, I could almost swear that something was wrong with her bill, and that she couldn’t close it properly. That, or she was panting.
By this time, I had grown tired of gnashing my teeth at the Anna’s on my way out the door. I resolved, as my high-cultured-ness must surely demand of me, to be more honest about the nature of hummingbirds. They treated each other badly because that’s what they did, and the good parts probably outweighed the bad. But there was a flaw in this thinking, similar to my perspective change on Asshole so long ago, that I had just started to realize. If I was going to accept natural hummingbird behavior as it was, who was I to characterize any of it as either “good” or “bad?” This made my head hurt, and in retribution for posing such complex logic problems, I went back to scowling at the Anna’s.
Evening Feeding: Primetime
“Prime Time” is the magical time of day between when late-afternoon turns into evening and evening turns into dusk. Why is it magical?
Because fading light means desperation for hummingbirds, their last chance to stock up on calories before nightfall. Not only will they unable to feed for eight hours straight, but if it gets cold enough they will have to go into torpor.
Torpor is equivalent to a very strong sleep, or a mild hibernation: the birds’ body temperatures plummet, their heart rates fall to 50 beats per minute, and their metabolism is one-fifteenth of its normal daily rate (Hummingbird Sleep). While this saves enormous energy and resources during the night, it also takes energy to come out of torpor. If a hummer is ill or malnourished, it might not be able to wake back up again.
The threat of starvation during the night means that hummingbirds who would not be nearly as assertive during the day fly determinately and repeatedly in to feed, sometime getting chased off, sometimes winning a few seconds at the feeder.
The result is aerial dogfights, non-stop conflict between the one or two territorial males who find themselves overwhelmed by sheer numbers and the meeker, inherently less dominant birds like the Black-Chins and female Anna’s.
“Aerial dogfights” might seem like a nice attention-grabbing choice of words, something sensational that will engage the reader, but in this instance, the phrasing is nothing short of accurate. Every evening, a dominant male Anna’s clings to the thin wire hook that suspends the feeder, making the strangely high-pitched, thin series of chirps and chortles that advertises the feeder as his. When another hummer approaches, the Anna’s floats menacingly off the hook, ready to land again in a second when the intruder goes away, or to advance more threateningly if he does not. If the intruder still attempts to get at the feeders, the Anna’s will charge forward, buzzing his wings. Depending on the degree of resistance offered, the two will either claw and stab at each other in a rapidly-traveling ball of anger, or zoom away in a chase resembling pursue-and-destroy. Both options leave precious unguarded seconds open to whoever can claim the vacancy first, and unlike during the day, during Prime Time there’s an abundance of hummers waiting to fill it. The above-described starts up between those vying for a spot, and resumes with the original Anna’s male when he returns.
All these acrobatics are possible because hummingbirds can hover in midair and fly forwards, backwards, sideways, vertically, and upside down. In general, hummingbirds’ wings beat multiple times per second, with the rate varying depending on the size of the bird in question – smaller bird species have a faster rate of wingbeats than larger birds. The Black-Chinned Hummingbird is a smaller hummingbird (though certainly not the smallest on earth) and has a wingbeat of about 50 per second (Williams).
My enjoyment of Prime Time can’t be overstated, and you, reader, might therefore infer that I also enjoy my hummingbirds’ possessive brattiness. Quite the contrary: Prime Time is the only time when my hummingbirds come close to the concept of sharing, and believe me, I’ve tried so hard to get my hummingbirds to share: The variety of feeders in Appendix 1 pictures provides a quick summary of the combinations, relocations, and various feeder styles that I’ve tried, but to no avail. My hummingbirds remain either bullies or weaklings. I’ve accepted them.
Anyway, wouldn’t my new strategy of “accepting nature as it is” preclude using such language to describe their behaviors? “Possessive brattiness,” “bully,” and “weakling” all have such negative connotations. Yet most descriptive language is emotionally charged, and wouldn’t it become boring to constantly refer to the above as “territorial behavior,” “dominant individuals,” and “subordinate individuals?” Besides, even these dry descriptions have connotations behind them.
The Black-Chins are long gone by now. I think the last one I saw in Tempe was during the beginning of September, though they may hang around the southern part of the state longer. Black-Chins are present throughout the Southwest during spring, summer, and early fall, and migrate south to Mexico for the winter. However, perhaps due to the presence of bird gardens and feeders, some have started wintering farther north. This trend may be the beginnings of a range expansion, with “range expansion” being crucial to note, as it’s a common misconception that leaving hummingbird feeders up into late fall and winter will confuse hummingbirds and disrupt their migratory schedule. In fact, birds’ instincts to migrate are triggered by the fewer hours of sunlight in fall. Keeping feeders up will have no effect on the well-being of the species, and is even helpful to hungry migrants passing through.
The End with The Tree:
The Tree made it into fall. On October 22nd, they trimmed the tree. On October 22nd, they sawed off all the inner branches on which the hummingbirds had made their nests, on which I had seen the first Black-Chinned juvie, on which I had watched hummers preen through my window. The pile on the ground looked like a tangle of limbs, perfectly healthy limbs, limbs that half-dollar sized nests were still fastened to with cobwebs and moss, and which I now knew I would never find.
I was about to wanted to rush down the stairs and stop them. But what would I say? Cite the Migratory Bird Act? It didn’t say anything about trees.
I watched them haul off the branches, drop more on the ground, and haul more away. The large black wasp that I had occasionally wondered about circled the tree a few times, then flew away. The swallowtail butterflies that I had recently realized must like citrus emerged from the leaves. They flapped around the branches for a moment, then flew off too. I wondered how many of their eggs laid on the branches would remain after this was over. It was not a modest trim.
I watched the workers doing what they do from my window for a few minutes before I shut the blinds. Then I left for class early because I couldn’t shut out the splintering crashes. I knew I would be so thankful a few days later that this didn’t happen months ago, with unnoticeable tiny nests filled with eggs or flightless baby hummers, nests that I now know I’ll never find. The hummingbirds that stay year-round will find new perches, and if they have to, new trees. I wish they didn’t have to.
While on a birding trip to southern Arizona in October, I saw my first immature Black-Chinned male. Unlike the juvie I saw in Tempe weeks previously, this one had started growing in his gorget. He sported an asymmetrical purple patch on one side of his chin.
I thought of Asshole, the Black-Chinned with the heart of an Anna’s, and imagined that I was making up for not enjoying him more during his head-hummership. To date, there has not been another Black-Chin head-hummer.
Then I caught myself, and reminded myself not to project my own stories onto hummingbirds, or any other creature for that matter. These reeducation efforts have sometimes felt like thumping my head against the wall:
(thump) Kettner’s ousting of Asshole was not a shameful display of greed and everything that’s wrong with the world.
(thump) Fluffy hummingbirds grooming themselves no longer equal fantastic, wonderful nature.
(thump) Nature does what nature does, regardless of what meanings I try to find in it.
(thump) It is futile and inaccurate trying to reduce the complexity of the natural world into simplistic human terms.
(thump) It is also limiting.
There are valid reasons for my reprogramming effort. The head-hummers did exactly what they were supposed to do, and my dislike of it only limited my enjoyment of them. Then, trying to decide whether behaviors were “good” or not was distracting. The very fact that I didn’t know how to feel about these things should have been why I paid attention: so I could learn things, and broaden my understanding of the world.
(thump) Nature is nature, and anthropomorphizing the hummers doesn’t do anything to help myself or anyone else understand their complexities….
In Appendix One, I describe the “asymmetrical purple patch” immature as an “adolescent,” with an “acne-like splotch of purple.” You understand from both what the hummer looked like, but the teenager comparison is instantly relatable to a human audience.
Plus, trying to make meaning out of things is apparently what we do. Lyanda Lynn Haupt conveys lots of factual information about her featured species in The Urban Bestiary, but she also recognizes the importance of interweaving human experiences. After all, humans are her intended audience. And humans, among other things, respond to “myths[, which] have always given our meaning-seeking species a way to find the thread of pattern, significance, and timelessness underlying our chaotic and unpredictable lives” (Haupt 9). Doesn’t accepting nature as it is include accepting our own nature to find meaning in things? Does human nature extend to chopping up perfectly healthy but non-contemporary looking trees?
My reactions to hummingbirds have been shifting since the day I first sat down to watch them. I expect my answers to the above will change too, because I don’t know how to feel about these questions. One of the few definitive lessons from hummingbird behavior is to pay attention to this uncertainty, and learn something.
[fusion_tab title=”Appendix 1: Who’s Who? The Leaders, Conquerers, Vanquished, and More”]
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
My feeders have routinely featured what I call “head-hummers;” Asshole was the first. In addition to this honor, he was the first, and the last, Black-Chinned head-hummer. Note the speck of white underneath his left wing. This makes him physically distinctive from Seahorse.
Named after an obnoxious former classmate, Kettner established his dominion after defeating Asshole.
This little Black-Chinned male had his species’ little tail bob down.
The spunky Anna’s male with the warped bill.
The confused little Anna’s female who never did get a proper drink. My derision appears to have prevented me from taking her picture.
The early-morning hummer at the top of a tree:
The “lump” spotted on my 5:00am birding walk.
The first juvie Black-Chinned:
The picture below is from my delightful encounter with what I’m 95% sure was a Black-Chinned juvie (juvenile). It’s slim stature meant it could also have been a Black-Chinned female, but bill-whacking (what you can see it doing in the picture below) indicates aggression or nervousness. Given that this hummer flew off almost as soon as it saw me, I’m inclined to think it was a scared little juvenile hummer.
I was initially riveted as first one, then another bird came to power. Eventually there were so many that following the drama of head-hummer became a bit wearing, much like watching the fourteenth season of a once-beloved sitcom. That, and there was no way to keep track of them all once the baby hummers fledged. The last head-hummer that I was acquainted with was an Anna’s male who liked, so to speak, to go to bed early. This left a 10 to 15 minute window of opportunity before total nightfall for the other hummers to come in and feed He was a little bastard, yes. But (and?) he also displayed the range of behaviors that make hummingbirds so endearing. He’s shown below, grooming.
[youtube id=”YpXTPDjzXDM” width=”600″ height=”350″ autoplay=”no” api_params=”” class=””]
Host to sparrows, butterflies, giant wasps, hummingbirds, and dreams. It met its downfall on October 22nd, but even now, it’s growing back.
GENERAL ID TIPS:
Black-Chinned Hummingbirds are dimorphic, meaning that males and females look different from each other. Males have green backs and sides, and a white belly that appears to “stripe” upwards, ending in a white half-collar around their necks. The male’s head appears all black in poor light, but sunlight reveals an iridescent feather patch underneath his chin that, when illuminated, appears bright purple. This iridescent under-the-chin coloration, called a gorget, is not a feature on females.
Female hummingbirds are inherently difficult to ID, especially with a bad angle or in poor light. As an example of this is the female alongside the male Black-Chinned in “Duelling Hummers” above ( I suspect Black-Chinned due to the long bill and small size, but I could be wrong).
As in most (but not all) hummingbirds, the female Black-Chinned is rather plain. Like males, she has a green back and sides and a somewhat greyer belly and neck that, in comparison to the male, seem further subdued due to her lack of black head and purple chin. Instead, she has a light green top-of-the-head and a plain white or light grey throat. If one looks at it closely, tiny and uniformly distributed spots are visible.
Along with the Anna’s larger size and chunkier stature, the throat is another field mark that can help separate the female Anna’s Hummingbird from the female Black-Chinned. The Anna’s female has a surprisingly vibrant throat featuring a small yet noticeable centralized burst of color.
It’s relatively easy to spot a male Anna’s. His brilliant pink gorget steals the show, and even in shadow, you know it’s there.
These are especially challenging to ID due to size fluctuations and still-developing plumage. Note that with the juvie mentioned above, I first narrowed the species down to the Black-Chinned due to its slim shape, then to a juvenile or a female due to its bare throat. Nervous behavior led to my ID as a Black-Chinned juvie.
Maturing birds (immatures or sub-adults) feature strange blends of plumages — this fall I encountered an “adolescent” Black-Chinned male that had an acne-like splotch of purple on the underside of his chin.
When in doubt, or even if you think you’re sure, take pictures and consult a field guide!
Photo Credits: All pictures above credited to Cass Murphy
[fusion_tab title=”Appendix 2: Other Hummingbirds of the Southwest “]
The hummingbird species you’re likely to see in the Southwest varies widely depending on location, habitat, and time of year. For example,
Anna’s Hummingbirds can be found in the Southwest year round and in most habitats, while
Black-Chinned Hummingbirds are also common, but migrate south for the winter.
Some species have smaller or more habitat-specific ranges:
Some hummingbird ranges barely extend into the US (and like the Black-Chinned, this might only be seasonally), which makes southern Arizona a prime spot for birdwatchers:
Along this line, some are casual vagrants from Mexico, meaning they usually don’t appear in the Southwest at all:
And some hummingbirds can be seen only during migration, as they pass through en route to somewhere else:
Range maps retrieved from Audubon.org.
[fusion_tab title=”Works Cited”]
Audubon.org. National Audubon Society, Inc, 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.
About Hummingbirds. Hummingbirds.net, n.d. Web. 3 Sept 2014.
Black-chinned Hummingbird. Audubon, 2014. Web. 2 Sept 2014.
Black-chinned Hummingbird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, nd. Web. 2 Sept 2014.
Fogden, Michael, and Taylor, Marianne, and Williamson, Sheri. Hummingbirds: A Life-Size Guide to Every Species. New York: Harper Design, 2014. Print.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. The Urban Bestiary. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.
Hummingbird Sleep. World of Hummingbirds, n.d. Web. 2 Sept 2014.
Mayntz, Melissa. Hummingbirds Predators. About.com, n.d. Web. 1 Sept 2014.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Sibley, David Allen. Sibley’s Hummingbirds of North America. Steven M. Lewers and Associates, 2012. Print.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN Red List, n.d. Web. 3 Sept 2014. < http://www.iucnredlist.org/about/introduction >
Williams, David B. Black-Chinned Hummingbirds. Desert USA, n.d. Web. 2 Sept 2014.
Yarnold, David. Audubon and Ted Williams. Audubon Magazine, 26 March 2013. Web. 1 Sept 2014. [/fusion_tab]