Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Little Miracles

My friend R. has endured a long and difficult winter. It was a tunnel of a season, and happy news made spring a burst of light, both figuratively and literally, at the end of it for her, her family, and friends.

And Nature, after having been so cruel, now saw fit to present a tiny gift: An Anna's hummingbird came and made her nest in a shrub in her garden, weaving it on a limb at head height and within arm's reach.

Fortunately for this trusting little bird, she selected a garden in which  nobody would disturb her, though she doesn't appear bothered by people peeping at her or photographing her at long range. She goes about her age-old springtime duties without any knowledge of the meaning with which we, the watchers, invest it.

The first nest she built, for example, was destroyed by a violently windy rainstorm. So, too, were the miniature pair of eggs she'd laid in it. Undaunted, she immediately set to work again, carefully constructing a new cup of wispy leaves, tiny feathers, and plant down, bound with spider webs and stippled with specks of lichen and moss

She weighs no more than a nickel, yet has the heart of a lion, persevering against all odds. 

We're certainly not the first to notice how fearless and determined a hummingbird is. Various Native American peoples credited hummingbirds with the power to stop volcanic eruptions, cause rain, create stars by stitching the night sky with their beaks, and fly above the sky to see  past the blue. 

The Aztecs esteemed a hummingbird god of war and sun and believed that the souls of fallen warriors became hummingbirds. Many cultures believed hummingbirds carried messages between the human world and The Beyond.

To the Maya, the hummingbird was the sun in bird form. An old Mojave story tells how a hummingbird brought sunlight from the underworld and gave it to humans. Its role as a pollinator of flowers was appreciated, too, and inspired the Taino of the Caribbean to consider the hummingbird as a symbol of new life. 

"Enough with the symbolism," the bird nesting in R.'s garden interrupts. "I have two 'symbols' of my own to tend!"

Soon after building her new nest, she'd laid two eggs--a typical clutch size for a hummingbird. Each egg was about the size of a jellybean. 

About two weeks later, the eggs hatched. The impossibly small chicks together weighed little more than a paperclip.

But what an appetite they proved to have! 

Now the female hummingbird spends the day feeding herself so that she can feed them. She carries a porridge of tiny insects and spiders mixed with nectar in her crop and regurgitates it into the gaping maws of the chicks. 

Anybody who has watched a hummingbird feed her babies is astonished that the babies survive it; they could all go on to careers as miniature sword-swallowers.

A typical day for a hummingbird requires lots of energy-intensive flying, including hovering beside flowers. A hummingbird's small size adds to its caloric demand: its surface area is proportionately larger for its size than a bigger bird’s, so it loses body heat more readily.  

So it's not surprising that a hummingbird has a high metabolic rate requiring lots of fuel. A hummingbird eats about half its weight in food each day and spends about 15 percent of its time feeding and another 80 percent perched, digesting.

It's hard to imagine how the mother bird manages to meet her own caloric needs, let alone that of two ravenous babies who also need to be kept warm. Or how she manages to survive and thrive despite the hailstorm that pelted us last week.

What about Papa Hummingbird?  Where's he during all this drama?

Well. Papa has nothing to do with the babies. He's too busy staking out territory and showing off his beautiful crown and gorget of iridescent red feathers to do any grocery shopping or spoon feeding. I photographed the one below showing off in Carkeek Park.

In barely three weeks, the chicks will be ready to leave the nest. Then each one will strike out on its own, having nothing more to do with its mom or its sibling. 

In the words of John James Audubon himself, it will fly "on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to another, with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course over our extensive continent, and yielding new delights wherever it is seen."