Stroking the Hummingbird's Tail

We live at such different rates, the hummers and I. In the second it takes me to turn toward the window—slowly and carefully, so as not to scare anyone—she is there and gone again. Another zips in, a female broadtail, and a male black-chinned dive-bombs her from his observation post and chases her off, all in a blink.

My feeder is one of those little square ones that sticks on the window with a suction cup; it holds a half-pint of sugar water, which "my" flock of hummers drinks in about a day. Even though I fill it completely full on Friday afternoon, by Monday morning it's bone dry. It reminds me of college, when the dormitory cafeteria didn't serve Sunday dinner, and we all had to go scrounging elsewhere for food—and it makes me feel sorry for them.

Because I just couldn't stand to see their little feet scrabbling for a hold while they hovered to feed, I glued little perches onto the sides of the feeder so they could settle down while drinking from two of the "flowers." Every now and then, two birds, either very hungry or partners in a truce, sit at the two side perch flowers, alternately drinking and looking around, studiously ignoring one another. And sometimes there's a third at the hover flower, gulping away, and even a fourth, looking to shoulder someone aside for her turn. When I reach out to remove the reservoir for a refill, they all back off, then follow the thing around in my hand, almost into the building.

I keep the window, a double-hung that slides up from the bottom, open about two inches for ventilation and, truth be known, so I can hear them better, both the humming, as well as the squabbling, little squeaks, and chirps and trills. When there are several birds jockeying for position, occasionally, just for amusement, I'll ease a hand out the window under the feeder, palm up, and wiggle my fingers. They all leap backwards into the air and hover a foot away, looking at this strange thing, staring at it and probably wondering "What the hell is that?"

When they're around, the male rufous hummers are the worst bullies, but aside from that, the pecking order doesn't seem to be linked to species. There's one male black-chinned that keeps everyone else at bay, but there's another who's positively a wimp. The male broadtails, wings whistling, signal their approach—which works to clear them a spot at the feeder only about half the time. And sometimes the males chase the females off and sometimes it's the other way around. Apparently, individual birds have personality.

If I'm careful, I can get my face within a few inches of them, and up close they can look positively scruffy. Oh, their colors are spectacular, especially the iridescent red on the throats of the male broadtails, but the wind and the fighting gets their feathers rumpled up. Maybe they're just not compulsive preeners. Or maybe it's intentional. Some appear to have little punk haircuts, the feathers on top of their heads sticking out at odd angles. Must be the younger generation.

To my surprise, they lap up the sugar water like dogs. Because they make their living by licking up the nectar inside flowers, I suppose this makes sense--long beak or no, it would be unlikely that it would function as a straw. Sugar water makes a fine substitute for nectar (they sure seem to like it, at least), and they reach in with tongues twice as long as their beaks and lap away, several times a second, too fast to count. And because the sugar water attracts bugs as well as birds, occasionally a hummer will pause from her drink to snap a gnat out of mid-air, a little protein to go with the sugar. Yum.

To attract them, the top of the feeder is red, with funnel-shaped holes for "flowers," and the rest of it is clear, which explains how I learned about hummingbird tongues. Face down in a flower, lapping away, the birds can only see to the side, so sometimes, if I'm careful, they don't see my hand creeping out under the feeder.

There's a female broadtail perched at the right-side flower, head down, drinking greedily, too busy to notice much of anything. I reach over, slowly, carefully, with my index finger and stroke the tip of her tail- and wing-feathers, folded neatly together. The first time I do it so carefully that I can't even tell I touched her, except her feathers moved. They I do it again, more firmly, so I can feel the feathers--which, to my amazement, feel just like regular bird feathers. She wiggles her rump and then actually turns her head and looks straight at me through the window, with what I would swear is an offended expression, as if to say "Now don't get fresh, there, buster!"