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Friday, December 23, 2016

The Curious Case of the Fallen Hummer: or A Bird in the Hand...

Over the weekend we hosted the family Christmas party. The day was unseasonably cold. A breath of frigid air from the Arctic vortex gripping most of the nation leaked into our mild maritime climate. For two or three days daytime temps didn't rise above freezing. The chickens' water bucket froze solid during the night as did the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window. I took to bringing both bucket and feeder in at night and setting them out in the morning frost free.

Thanks to our local hummingbird species--Anna's--we have a front row window seat of hummer activity year round. Winters, during rare periods of sub-freezing temperatures, a male Anna's perches sentinel in the backyard maple within twenty feet of the kitchen window food source. During the day I like to play "Where's Waldo" with the tiny bird, where after close scrutiny of several bare twigs either the dull green sheen of his back or a twist of head and beak give him away.

On party day my brothers had retired outdoors to the deck and were engaged in a lively competition, a bit of oral frivolity involving olives tossed high in the air, when brother Keith noticed what he thought was a leaf drop suddenly from a maple branch. When he went to investigate, Keith found a male Anna's hummer lying motionless in the grass. He gently scooped it up and to share his discovery, called me over. Other than appearing stunned, the bird looked to be uninjured: eyes open, wings not all appearances unharmed, just stunned. Stunned how? It didn't fly full tilt into a window pane but landed on a lawn that's now mostly moss. I took the bird from him, not knowing quite what to do with a handful (and a very small one at that) of hummingbird and took it inside.

Although I inserted the bird's slender beak in an eyedropper full of syrup, it would not drink. I closed my hand tighter, thinking my body heat might bring the little guy around. Just its shimmering ruby head and stiletto beak were exposed. For a few minutes I wandered around the house cuddling the tiny bird in my hand. In a show-and-tell mode I went from one household guest to another: "Look what I have here." Five or six minutes of public display was all it took and then a fluttering in my closed fist like I was shaking hands with a prankster holding a buzzing vibrator button. The little fellow had revived and was demanding release which I was only too happy to grant. I stepped outside, opened my fist...a pause, and then the bird shot from my hand, darted up in the maple tree, and perched on a twig. It had hardly escaped before it zoomed in to protect the feeder from an upstart female.

Grateful on the one hand, puzzled on the other, I tried to make sense of it all. When I shared the incident with a birder friend of mine, he said regional hummingbirds survive our harsh winter climate by entering a state of torpor which enables them to regulate their metabolism to conserve energy and body heat, a physiological phenomenon where, like flicking a switch, hummers can literally shut down the life within them. Perhaps at that moment I had observed a state of hummingbird torpor? But why would such a tiny, vulnerable creature do such a thing? Switch himself off and drop twenty feet to the ground possibly to be picked off by a marauding cat? Such behavior seemed so un-Darwinian. I have also heard that a hummer can starve to death in an hour's time if it doesn't find nourishment. Not sure if science substantiates that, but I'm inclined to side with my wife's theory. She believed because of all the olive tossing on the deck, plus the bustle of activity around the kitchen sink, the little male was afraid to access his food source and succumbed to a hypoglycemic tailspin.

All theories aside, my heart lifted when that little bird left the warmth of my hand and returned, apparently unscathed to our kitchen window to remind us once again that some day summer will return. Print this post


  1. I always smile when reading your blogs Terry. You and your brother possibly created the situation that interfered with the hummingbirds normal staying alive in the winter patterns from your feeder as your wife mentioned, but realized and reacted and saved the hummingbird as well thus creating a memorable experience for you and your brother. Thats a happy holidays gift.

    1. Matt, consider my making you smile yet another Christmas gift, for 'tis the season to give, you know. Thanks for reading The Ripple. Here's to more smiles in 2017. A very Merry Christmas to those Beebes. TMJ

  2. When I read the title I wasn't sure if there would be a happy ending. Glad to hear the little guy survived. That is a very odd thing for a hummer to do and not sure it would have ended well for the little guy had you not intervened. Good job!

    1. The last I saw of Mr. Annas he was bullying a female from the feeder shortly after leaving my hand. I've only seen one male since then. Don't know if it's the same one I rescued. Lots of female activity, though. Another cold front is coming in this weekend. Perhaps the male in question will resume his perch close to the feeder. If he returns,I hope he doesn't have another "medical emergency."

      A couple years back I rescued a spotted towhee from the clutches of a Cooper's hawk that it had snagged from midair and downed in the driveway. I was just heading out for a walk when I heard the towhee's distress call, turned and shouted at the hawk. It released the bird and flew up in a fir tree. The towhee fled to safety across the road. Thanks for reading The Ripple. TMJ