A loud buzz summons me to the window to watch a male ruby-throated hummingbird rocketing back and forth in front of the spicebush, parabola flattened into an x-axis 18 inches long — not the usual U-shaped courtship trajectory. The revs are correspondingly shorter: rrRRR rrRRR rrRRR. The female sits a foot away in the shade, as green as the green leaves but more shimmery: polished jade surrounded by raw jadeite.

Long before hummer ever became a car, it was a bird with the fastest engine and a fierce red flag for everyone else in the race. In courtship displays, its manic energy is simply redirected. If you’ve ever hung out a hummingbird feeder and witnessed the constant dogfights, you can probably understand how Hummingbird-on-the-Left became a god of war to the Aztecs, in whose songs the heart was always a blood-red flower waiting to be plundered.

Evolutionarily speaking, it cannot be an accident that the eponymous gorget of the ruby-throated hummingbird is the same color as its favorite nectar sources. For the watching female, it must be both hypnotic and deeply alluring, this swinging blossom dangled right in front of her. For the male, I imagine, it’s as vertiginous as any great wager: Take me. Attack.

6 Replies to “Hummer”

  1. Interesting post.

    I wonder how many species’ males use something that we might consider to be like hypnosis to attract the females. I remember watching male turtles of a couple of species attract mates in water by wiggling their front fingers (fingers?) in their faces. (Though the females seemed only bothered by it, as I might have been.)

  2. I had my own close encounter with a hummer (Anna’s) this morning — as I was watering the okra, it came and practically landed on my hand, trying to get at the water. The beans are now flowering enough for some nectar, though I think it would have better luck with the California fuchsia which is now flowering too, and much more hummingbird-bill-shaped…

  3. Peter – It’s hard to say. Science is barely at the point of admitting that animals have inner lives, and I’m sure this kind of speculation would be dismissed as anthroporphism by many if not most hard-headed people. But to me, anthopomorphism is not only unavoidable but desirable for us non-scientists who want to build a greater sense of connection with the rest of nature. (It’s sentimentality – the handmaiden of objectifying reductionism – that we need to avoid.)

    Peter #2 – I’m always happy to link good stuff, though I try to avoid linking to the same people more than twice in ten S-borg entries.

    Pica – I guess the relative fearlessness of hummingbirds is a characteristic of the family, isn’t it? They move so quickly, I suppose they have little to fear from most potential predators.

    One of my fondest memories is of dawn in a Honduran cloudforest, with hummingbirds visiting all the bromeliads in the half-light. A peak “morning porch” experience!

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