Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Summer's Hummers Are Winter's Glitter

Why it has taken me two decades to put up a hummingbird feeder, I cannot say. Miniature birds cloaked in dazzling jewel tones buzzing around like radio-controlled helicopters outside the living room window go a long way toward livening up a gray Northwest winter day.

It never ceases to amaze me that such a tiny puff of life can survive this far north in winter.

Seattle’s maritime climate generally soaks us in drizzle, mist, rain, fog, and all-purpose grayness for most of the winter (and a good chunk of autumn and spring)—not exactly the lush, warm paradise you’d envision for a hummingbird. Throw in a few subfreezing cold snaps and snowstorms, and you’d think the hummingbirds were goners for sure.

Instead, here we are, lingering over coffee, watching this iridescent creature sipping sugar water as snowflakes buffet its thumb-sized body.

When the female (at right) visits, she typically perches, feeds, then flies away. The male, however, tends to hang around between meals.

On this snowy morning, he alternated sips with perching on a limb of the red-twig dogwood, where he sat shaking his head, fanning his tail, and flicking his wings to shrug off snowflakes. It was hard to tell if the flakes were irritating him or if he was enjoying a shower—the actions were so much like those of a rufous hummingbird I’d seen bathing in a fountain last summer.

When he took refuge under the birdbath, however, it was clear that he wasn’t charmed by the snowflakes.

The sugar solution in the feeder (a standard 4 parts water/1 part sugar confection boiled, then cooled) stayed liquid until the temperature hit 29 degrees, at which point we brought it indoors to thaw.

While it was gone, the hummingbird continued to visit, hovering in the spot where the feeder normally hangs. He pirouetted around the empty space, as if the feeder would magically appear if only he viewed it from the right angle, forming question marks in the air with his flight patterns.

An awful image entered our minds at the thought of hummingbirds attempting to sip from a frozen feeder—an avian version of the tongue-frozen-to-a-pole scene from A Christmas Story.

Fortunately, “hummingbird tongue freezing” does not seem to be a problem recorded in the halls of birdlore, though some hummer fans sound an alarm about purported “perch hypothermia.”

("Perch hypothermia" is a supposed syndrome in which hummingbirds topple from perches after feeding on cold sugar solution, which supposedly wouldn’t happen if they hovered in front of the fake red flowers instead. I can’t help but feel there’s a strand of Protestant-work-ethic at work here: “Encouraging hummingbirds to be lazy and sit on perches is the work of the devil”).

Our visitor, by the way, is specifically an Anna’s hummingbird, a species that has expanded its winter range over the past 50 years. My decades-old Audubon bird encyclopedia notes that the Anna’s is the only hummingbird to winter in the United States and that it only nests in California; both statements are now false.

Hummers of other species, for example, are now known to winter in the southeastern states. The existence of exotic flowers in gardens as well as hummingbird feeders is reputed to have aided and abetted the expansion of hummers’ ranges, though it’s likely that other factors are driving it, too, and the increased presence of the hummers no doubt inspires the setting-out of feeders.

As for the Anna’s (which now ranges as far north as British Columbia), it even starts courting, nesting, and laying eggs in the northwest before the end of February. A midwinter walk is filled with hummingbirds’ squeaky conversations.

Photo (c) Alan Vernon, from Wiki Commons.
Last January I jumped out of my socks while admiring a female Anna’s perched low in a tree when a male hummingbird swooped in my face, wings whirring loudly, and shouted “PEEK!” in my ear, all in the snap of a second as he reached the bottom point of a courtship dive and then swooped upward again. It was as if someone had made a giant check mark next to my head.

Every time I see the hummingbird sitting quietly on his perch outside in the cold, I long to scoop him up and bring him inside to warm up, but he’s quite capable of enduring the chill despite having the fastest metabolism of any warm-blooded vertebrate animal (apparently even more frantic than that of a shrew’s).

At night, his heart rate drops from a typical 250 beats per minute to just 50 beats and he slips into a state of torpor. This ratcheting-down of his metabolism, combined with a crop full of nectar as a bedtime snack, enables him to survive an ice-cold winter night as long as he’s tucked safely out of the rain. It’s a tactic used by other hummingbird species, too.

According to naturalist William Leon Dawson, writing in 1923, even hummers living in tropical places go into torpor when conditions are bad: in Chile, a hummingbird “habitually weathers extended storms and bad nights in a comatose condition…Some perish in this fashion, but most of them revive with the returning sun.”

First thing in the morning, the little bird must surely anticipate a hit of “nectar” the way I do my coffee. Devoted hummingbird fans don’t settle for bringing in the feeder at night to avoid freezing and setting it out again in the morning—they’ve come up with ingenious ways of preventing freezing.

Their methods including hanging a “trouble light” near the feeder, strapping a hand warmer to it with duct tape (yay, duct tape!), cloaking it in heat tape, and stringing Christmas lights on it (though with the introduction of LED Christmas lights, this pretty ambient-heat solution will surely be phased out).

All this is a far cry from the way Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist friend of Audubon’s, treated a poor little female Anna’s when he happened upon her nest:

“My good friend Thomas Nuttall [writes Audubon], while travelling from the Rocky Mountains toward California, happened to observe on a low oak bush a Humming-bird's nest on which the female was sitting. Having cautiously approached, he secured the bird with his hat. The male in the meantime fluttered angrily around, but as my friend had not a gun, he was unable to procure it.”

I’d like to kick Nuttall in the shins for his action, never mind that he was advancing our understanding of the new world’s birds. Poor little mama bird, bravely guarding her bean-sized eggs, and her poor mate, zealously guarding her in vain! (The bit about the gun is astonishing: What on earth would be left of a hummingbird blasted with a shotgun?)

Most of the news of the day is guaranteed to make me feel that we’re going to Hades in a handbasket, but when I read accounts like this, I take heart that perhaps there’s a flicker of hope if our species is capable of going from catching nesting hummingbirds in our hats to decorating feeders with Christmas lights.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Slush No Be Get Respect

Hello. Me slush. Me here now in Seattle, snow go away. But me no be happy. No. Slush sad. And mad. Why?

Well, think us. Everybody all "Oooohh, snow so pretty, snow so nice. I hope it snow."

Nobody ever say "Oh, slush. Slush nice. I hope it slush."

No, no. All day it be "Ew, slush. Yuk, slush. Ugh, hate slush. Snow gone, now just slush."

And poor slush name! It be for bad things! See book of words (no be drop it on slush now): say slush be "refuse grease and fat from cooking especially on shipboard," "trashy and usually cheaply sentimental material," and "unsolicited writings submitted (as to a magazine) for publication."

Slush no be hang with such trash!

How you feel you hear that all day? It not fair. Snow think it so great. People make snowmen, throw snowball, cut paper snowflake, go slide snow on hills. But make slushmen? Have slush fight with slush fort? Put slush on windows? Stay slush resort? No. Slush no be good enough.

OK, I kind of...slushy. Still. I be water, and you body be like 60 percent water. Oh, me ice, too. You know. Ice, all sparkle? Put in drinks? And me snow! What not to like? Wear rubber shoes, you like me fine.

You like me cousin Slushee, all blue orange red lime. Just say.

You no can see slush tears because so water, but slush sad.

When slush comes to love, find none!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snowed In

First they predicted a "megastorm" (the Seattle Times's technical meteorological term). Next, the megastorm was downgraded to a bunch of snow: less than a snowpocalypse, but more than a dusting. And then a whole lot of snow fell on a bunch of places, followed by ice pellets and then more snow. Surprise!

The official statistics show that 6.8 inches fell at Sea-Tac (which jibes with our local weather station in the back yard, where my daughter stuck a wooden ruler in the snow on top of the picnic table and measured the depth at 6 inches). Which is nothing compared to the 3 feet that fell in the Cascades.

The streets are very treacherous--Seattle is very hilly, and if you add ice-slicked roads to hills, factor in gravity and lack of friction, and multiply it by stupid drivers, you will quickly figure out the result: cars crunched into other cars, spun out in the middle of streets, and abandoned by the side of the road.

This driver wisely bailed before entering the steep intersection.
Fortunately, nobody in our home had to go anywhere. School was canceled, my husband's workplace shut down, and I work from home.

So when I heard ice pellets pattering against the window in the pearly gray predawn, I snuggled further beneath the duvet; being only half-awake, I felt as if I were a small child again, and that my parents were just a room away, with everything taken care of and nothing to worry about.

Many people had the foresight to prop up windshield
wipers so they didn't freeze to the window, making the cars
look like giant insects. Even better when the car's front
bumper was lined with icicle fangs.
We did head out for many walks, however, and watched people take to the slippery steep streets with sleds, toboggans, skis, big pieces of cardboard, cookie sheets--anything that could be used for sliding down hills.

(The youngest member of the household, free of aches and pains, joined in the downhill free-for-all.)
Cross-country skiiers slipped down the side streets, and even a few snowmobiles were on the road.

The schussing and swooshing continues into the night; the nearby cross street has been shut to traffic and has gone from being a major thoroughfare to a ski slope. Laughter, teasing, whooping, and cheering reverberates late into the night. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nature, Exchanged

I have been meaning to sit down and write about the lovely package of found-in-nature items that I received in the mail as part of a fun swap arranged by the folks at The Magnifying Glass.

My parcel came from Annie of The Kademy. It was filled with tidbits from her Massachusetts habitat, which is not far removed from the ones I was familiar with growing up on Long Island and later living in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey. As you can see, it includes things fluffy, fuzzy, feathery, limey, and sandy.

Feathers from chickens
Milkweed seeds and silk
Angora bunny fur
Beach sand
There was a lovely bunch of sweetly scented lavender, too, and dozens of acorn caps, which will be put to good use in crafts.

They will have to be kept out of the reach of the Bad Cat, Django, who would love to steal everything and immerse it in the dog's water bowl, the graveyard of all small unattended objects in the house.

Monday, January 9, 2012

First Bird of the Year, 2012

Superstitions about the first of anything to occur on January 1st abound. The first person who steps into your home after midnight is said to augur the kind of year you can expect; the direction of the wind likewise can foretell calamity or prosperity; and in Hungary, you're lucky if your first visitor is a man but unlucky if it's a woman. (Feh.)

And apparently in medieval times, a farmer would impale a flat cake on the horn of a cow and dance around it, singing, until the cow threw the cake to the ground; if it landed in front of her, it would be a great year, but if it fell behind her, it would be a poor year. (What I wouldn't give to see John Cleese and the rest of the Python crew do a skit about this.)

Being fresh out of cows and flat cakes, I figured it made more sense to skew toward the game played by birders known as "Bird of the Year." This game mandates that the first bird you see on January 1 is the species that becomes the theme for your upcoming year--as author Lyanda Haupt puts it, it is the one "to bless your perspective, your imagination, your spirit."

As you can imagine, this can involve a bit of cheating or finessing the rules if you're not enchanted with the first bird you see (Haupt writes in her book Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds about birders who decide their first bird will be the first one they see after an arbitrary cutoff, say, the first one after 7 a.m., the first one after a cup of tea, and the like.)

How that bird translates into a theme seems to be your own business. Haupt decided that her first bird, a starling--a species reviled in the United States for being an invasive non-native that boots native species out of their nesting sites--could be a symbol for resilience.

Pair of young crows, cropped closeup taken from
photo (c) by William Meyer.
I thought how splendid it would be for my first bird to be the Anna's Hummingbird currently visiting the feeder outside my dining room window, or maybe even the elusive Snowy Owl lurking around Ballard, but I figured it would most likely be the (ho hum) House Finch. That species hogs the feeder morning and afternoon, a regular gang of six of them, leaving little to chance. But no. When I pulled open the drapes on January 1, the first avian life form was a crow in flight silhouetted against the morning clouds.

Crows abound in Seattle, so this first bird lacked any foreign flair. However, it's a fabulous first bird and one of my favorite species. Smart, brave, cunning, sassy, playful, loyal, adaptable, and handsome--what more could one want from a bird? I hope a crow year translates into rolling with the punches and maintaining a sense of humor all the while.

I did wonder what such an in-your-face bird signified for people inclined toward superstitions and augury in the past.  As you might guess, crows (though admired in many cultures for having great family values and cleverness) are often considered bad-luck omens.

You're apparently in for a really bad time if you see crows in a churchyard; have a lone crow fly over your house or cross your path; see two crows flying in tandem from the left; see a crow at sunset in the south; or spy one pulling human hair, perching on a skull, or sitting on your house with a red string in its beak.

Prominent ornithologists, however, have little patience for linking crows with dire news. Writer William Leon Dawson notes in Birds of Washington (1909) that the crow, "more than any other bird...has matched his wits against those of man, and his frequent easy victories and consequent boastings are responsible in large measure for the unsavory reptuation in which he is held."

And some painter-guy going by the name John James Audubon appears to have been an even more ardent admirer of the crow, which he calls a "poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird":

"The Crow is an extremely shy bird, having found familiarity with man no way to his advantage. He is also cunning--at least he is so called, because he takes care of himself and his brood. The state of anxiety, I may say of terror, in which he is constantly kept, would be enough to spoil the temper of any creature. Almost every person has an antipathy to him, and scarcely one of his race would be left in the land, did he not employ all his ingenuity, and take advantage of all his experience, in counteracting the evil machinations of his enemies...

"The Crow devours myriads of grubs every day of the year, that might lay waste the farmer's fields; it destroys quadrupeds innumerable, every one of which is an enemy to his poultry and his flocks. Why then should the farmer be so ungrateful, when he sees such services rendered to him by a providential friend, as to persecute that friend even to the death?"

All this makes me wonder if the crow I saw is pondering whether or not I was a worthy first-person-of-the-year to behold.