Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hour of the Hummingbird


A creature darts directly to the red bee balm. I see it see from my window because I happen to be having a good stare in that direction.
We have plenty of bees these days. I am little shocked when I can see about two dozen of them weaving through the flowers in a place where the taller blooms – loosestrife, phlox, larkspur, black-eyed susan – are pretty close together. You can walk a path between these and hear the hum of bright-lights and summer nectar gathering.
But this is not the flight of the bumblebee I spy from my perch by the window. It flew too directly. I consider this point for a moment or two before focusing in on the obvious conclusion. A hummingbird.
We have had them over the years – or perhaps one – since we only see one at a time. He always goes for the red-flowered bee balm.
I see him later the same evening when I walk out to the patio to fire up the barbecue grill. He is back by the fence visiting a spot where the butterfly bush borders the rose of Sharon. I watch. He escapes, flying to the shelter the mulberry tree.
Then a few days later, because I am dead-heading some blue balloon plants and clipping some gone-by flower stalks and otherwise paying no attention to what’s going on behind me, when I pause and straighten and turn around I see the hummingbird doing some early-in-the-day flower work of his own. He’s sampling each of the blossoms on a red lobelia that’s a fairly recent addition to the mid and late-summer garden party.
I’m only four feet away. Of course I don’t have a camera.
Birds don’t usually let you get that close. I must have blended in with the plants or otherwise resembled one closely enough for the bird to arrive and go to work with that long proboscis like beak, sticking into its nose into the feedsacks of the red lobelias without registering any dissuasive presence.
So I look at him. he appears to look back, though who knows which way bird’s eyes are looking. I’m not moving; maybe he only registers motion. Maybe he doesn’t really care if people stand next to him while he searches for food.
What do we say about the will, desire, and judgment of creatures not even recognized in the elevated mammalian order of being such as birds?
They choose where they move. To stay or go. To move left or right. To follow the flock or shoot out on their own.
Do they not have “minds”? How else do they make decisions?
I’m sure they respond to stimulus. But so do we.
I had a philosophy professor in ancient days who said in a discussion of the meaning of the word “mind” – definitions appear to be mostly what professional philosophers think about – that the word shouldn’t be limited to human beings. “Surely dogs and cats have minds,” he said. You can see them responding, making decisions, deciding on an action, or perhaps refraining from one. I seem to remember that he brought his dog to class on a leash. Is that any way to treat a “mind”?
People become experts on dog and cat behavior because we allow these animals to live with us, in our homes. We’re a little more distant with birds, though many of us feed them for a certain not easily describable species of entertainment we get from their presence.
But birds are small, they have small brains, they are bird-brained, and they are descended from reptiles.
Yet just the way we know from our pets that animals have personalities – we just don’t have a word for this quality – and their presence has the feel at times of “relationship” – something about standing next to that hummingbird while he went about his business, deciding to pay no overt attention to me, made me want to include him in this order of awareness. He neither darted off at the sight of me, or came closer for a chat. Clearly he can tell a flower from an imposter.
When he had investigated a sufficient number of booms, or pretended to for my benefit, he flew off without a second look. Or without more than a sidelong glance. Maybe birds only have sidelong glances. Maybe he was just pretending to sample flowers while he kept his sidelong glance on me, choosing not to dash off at once out of concern not to offend me, or merely out of a cautious desire to choose his own exit strategy.
Maybe he recognizes in some sense that I am the conduit of flowers in this particular spot on his territorial map (if there is such a thing) and that people here – vertical moving sort of structures, unlike trees – are responsible for providing nutritional opportunities for his kind in a place where otherwise vittles are rather scarce.
A minute or so later I saw him in the flowers that are his regular hangout, the bee balm – also red. I am not all sure the memory of our encounter endured for that minute.
But I think he knows when people are carrying cameras or not. We’ve brought the camera out with us once or twice during the dinner hour when we are dining al fresco, the hour when he makes his usual call on the red bee balm. On those occasions he never puts in an appearance.

Don’t Take My Picture

Hummingbird hovers
Snorkles in a flowered sea
Zig-zags from the lens