He was christened Mr. Hummingway by a dear friend who likes birds but is ambivalent about interaction with birds. She had formative experiences that made her view birds as flapping missiles who get tangled in your hair, dive bomb you, or suddenly ditch into the open window of your moving car on a freeway. Those are actually experiences she had as a young person.
I was surprised and excited when she offered to put a hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window — to see about this bird thing. Hummingbirds, of all birds, have the potential to freak her out, I thought, because they can buzz past your ears at record velocity. Or, gather in swarms (if you’re lucky).
But, in spite of the fact that her heart probably stopped when she watched this video, she was game. So, on a freakishly cold day for Seattle, I made warm nectar and placed the feeder in a tree just outside the breakfast table.
Within a day, a male Anna’s Hummingbird showed up. Anna’s stay in the Northwest through the winter now, even though historically, they migrated southward. This guy wasn’t at all bothered by the backlit humans just a few feet away behind the glass. In short order, he established his domain and chased every other Anna’s off the property. His antics earned him the literary tough guy moniker of Hummingway. Mr. Hummingway, that is.
I know it’s not always safe to name wild animals. Emotional attachment to uncertain outcomes leads to heartache in the wild world. At the same time, personalizing Hummingway gives him an approachable identity and a way for someone to connect where connection with birds, previously, might have been difficult. So, Hummingway he is.
An early snowstorm was forecast and we started to worry about the other hummingbirds who could use some sustenance during sub-zero days, but who were being driven off by Hummingway. Wildly territorial males will guard every feeder in sight, but with a second feeder out, at least the others would have a shot at food.
My friend’s husband bought a pole, hung a smaller feeder away from the first feeder and watched as Hummingway, again, burned off all his nectar carbs, chasing away other birds from both feeders.
As snow shrouded Seattle and covered the feeders like frosting, Hummingway became desperate to access the nectar ports — more desperate than he was to fight with other hummingbirds. I found Hummingway hovering, frantic, jabbing his beak into the accumulating snow, trying to find his liquid gold under the frost — a liquid turned solid for the 20-degree morning.
At the same time, a few enterprising females seemed to say, to hell with this guy. They deflected his hostility by staying at Hummingway’s nectar bar, covered in snow, even as he insisted they leave.
I ran out, brushed the snow off, and added warm water. He waited above me on a branch and swooped down the minute the human was gone. As temps dipped into the teens, I made it my routine to maintain my friend’s feeder, rise before dawn (because hummingbirds get up before dawn), cook up fresh nectar, tape hand warmers to the bottom of the feeder (a tip I got from the local bird supply store), hang baffles to fend off the snow, and make sure our friend Hummingway made it through the cold snap. On the mornings when I accidentally slept just past sunrise, I’d run over and remove the frozen feeders from their posts while Hummingway buzzed around me, anxious for his morning nectar. The first feeding after sleep is important for hummingbirds, who go into torpor, a hibernation-like state for the night, but then need quick energy upon arising.
Not having experience with wintering hummingbirds, I worried about Hummingway’s survival. The biggest challenge of our California feeders was keeping the nectar fresh and unfermented, as daily sun blazed through the acrylic. Here, on every subzero morning, I had a lump in my throat until I saw Hummingway shake himself awake in the alcove he found among the branches of a pyracantha.
Hummingway survived that trip through urban Narnia, Seattle’s snow kingdom. We made it through to spring, Hummingway and I, at which point Hugh and I picked up and moved to our new digs. (I’ve been told that Hummingway, or his successor, still commands the turf around that feeder.)
Hummingbird nesting season is coming soon and my friend thinks Hummingway should cool it with the little females who’ve been coming around — if he wants to get himself a girl. I need to remember to tell her that the Anna’s Hummingbird courtship ritual involves some high maneuvers and steep, fast dives. She might want to stay inside until Hummingway does, in fact, find himself a girl.