is a water-spark,
an incandescent drop
fire – Pablo Neruda, “Oda al Picaflor”
The hummingbird first appeared, most likely, when I was ass-in-the-air on the upper deck in downward-facing dog. The sun slanted through the oak branches, lighting on an unmoving cigar-shaped object as I moved through my yoga asanas.
I rose up to cobra, sweat-slicked on my spring-green yoga mat, the one cratered by gouge marks from my toenails. I squinted.
“Hello,” I said to the hovering object, which responded with a loud buzzing.
It didn’t dazzle with a striking emerald hue; ruby-throated hummingbirds get that metallic flash not from pigment, but the way their feathers refract light – and the light just never seems to strike them in the right way when I’m around. But it was definitely a hummingbird – a glaring, insistent, demanding hummingbird.
In the weeks that followed, I heard mouse-like squeaks and a loud humming whenever I walked outside, sparking worry over invading rodents and carpenter bees. Small eyes would glare at me from the deck, peering in our parlor windows. My father, paying a visit in late summer, finally diagnosed the problem after it tried to take a sip from his store-brand diet cola.
“Jenne, that bird is asking for a feeder,” he said.
Enter the cheerful red piece of plastic bought that day – and refilled many, many times since.
I mused to my father on how fragile the birds seemed, how frail.
“Don’t be fooled,” he said. “They’re tough little birds.”
How right he is.
The Gaelic word for hummingbird is dordéan, but our Druidic forebears wouldn’t have known the bird. While they originated in Eurasia, they left for South America 22 million years ago and then jumped to North America 10 million later; none remained in their original homeland (UC Berkeley). They evolved alongside the flora in their habitats, each influencing the other. And in an era of mass extinctions, hummingbirds continue to proliferate and diversify; according to research at the University of California at Berkeley, the origination rate of new species exceeds extinction rates.
Like their cousins, the swifts, hummingbirds are creatures of the air and sky, with tiny feet unsuited for the earth. At a rate of 53 per second, their wingbeats are a blur and their hearts can beat more than 1,000 times a minute, a wild drum driving a life of constant motion. They feed frequently to fend off the constant threat of starvation, and enter a death-like, mini-hibernation state at night to conserve their dwindling fuel.
While they seem to spend their lives flitting among the flowers, hummingbirds are also mighty hunters who must eat insects to meet their nutritional needs – another reason to love them in our buggy northern forest. And despite their fragile appearance, they are fierce, territorial and aggressive loners who will drive one another out of a feeding area in a manner that would do CuChulainn proud.
Twice yearly, these tiny birds participate in an immram that would amaze the heroes of yore – flying 20 hours or more across the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight to reach their winter grounds in Central America.
Despite their high-speed, rough and tumble life, these tiny fliers live longer than you might think; according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest known hummingbird was 9 years 1 month old, and other species have been known to live a decade or more.
While it might seem strange, hummingbirds have much in common with heroes such as CuChulainn. They are flashy creatures of extremes, living on the edge, pushing themselves farther than acceptable limits, defying their very physiognomy. They guard their territories, much as our hero guarded Ulster from the Connachtmen, and are largely solitary save for their annual mating-flings.
They may seem to be spectacles of fragile beauty, frail prisms that sip blossoms and glitter in the light, and popular totem dictionaries often define them as emblems of joy, playfulness and light. Don’t be fooled. Hummingbirds are emblems of the warrior, the risk-taker – and ultimately the survivor. Living life on the edge, they dazzle with their adaptability, their ferocity and their spunk
As the poet Pablo Neruda muses, here in translation:
you are so stouthearted —
with his black plumage
does not daunt you:
a light within the light,
air within the air.
Neruda, Pablo. “Oda al Picaflor (Ode to the Hummingbird.” Retrieved from the Bilingual Poetry Index
Sanders, Robert. “Hummingbird evolution soared after they invaded South America 22 million years
ago.” April 2, 2014, UC Berkeley News Center.
“The Ruby-throated Hummingbird.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.