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© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
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For the mallards who migrate and for those who stay behind, life is not easy. Much of the habitat on which they depend has been taken from them. Every year, I do what I can to make up for it.
Mallards are gathering. Hungry, complaining, up before sunrise and nothing in the belly. They stir the surface and wait. One calls. A loud descending voice like an old man railing against condition and age. The others mumble under their breath. Annoyed, querulous. Impatient for the food that has not arrived. Anxious for the giver to come yet mistrustful. A cry goes up and they fly a distance when they see him. Even though they know him.
They are wise not to trust.
Soon they will separate: Drakes to the one side, former fathers former sons molting together into winter iridescence (depending on the angle of view, night sky blue or brilliant green fire). Hens to the other side, former mothers former daughters drab in the brown that hides them but for that flash of purple deep as a welder’s arc and a final daub of white (almost hidden except when they take flight). Soon they will leave, these two drawn lots, on different days weeks apart but not toward a different route or result. They will be shot with equanimity all along the way, in great number, on their endless perilous journey seeking south.
But while they are here, I provide: I stand in place of the estuary that has been rerouted, water grass that was drowned, wild rice turned under, beaches walled off deep of the high tide mark and the sound of empty shells rolling in the back wash. I am the Source now, come stumbling and blurry as the cold ground fog laid down on the earth. I come every day. As if their lives depend on it. As if my life depends on it.
And it does. And it does.
Like a bee with a buzz with a twist like a top with a sweep with a lunge with a LOUD then stops, right there: Hovering; (Covering); Defending a ground that is Flower that is Food that is Air.
His beak is a lance his wings are a shout: Beware! Of me! Hummingbird!
All of an ounce of anger charges, headlong – Chases everyone away. Even the females of his kind. Sometimes, in a rage he will drive her down, to the dust and leave her spent. And fluttering. Aerodynamics sets the only limits. His right has no respite, has no bounds. Darts and dives and chitters. Intolerance is his nature, his nature, in a crowd? Never calm.
Herons and Egrets with great piercing bills; falcons with talons that crush; the terrible saw-toothed beaks of sea birds; the raking feet and spurs of the great birds of the ground – all of them strive against their own but almost always at a distance. They pretend. Noh drama of no-touch. Balinese shadow-play. And when the curtain falls? All grievances are over, and done with.
For Hummingbird, the size of a leaf the density of a folded pocket-handkerchief the stage is a World and the World is War. Black-chin puffs up the tiny feathers that give him his name into electric purple defiance. Broad-bill all sapphire and emerald brilliant (even his body glares). Broad-tail bringing up the rear – 3grams, no fear.
Only Magnificent Hummingbird ignores the worrying by all these others – by weight, and size, and the rumbling spread of his wings. His starlight-turquoise throat glittering in the leafy morning light, he alone owns peace.
So there it is: Size matters. I am reminded of that barroom adage (a barroom adage on the wing): Big guy knock you down, but a little guy will cut you!
Mark Seth Lender reading Intolerance on Living on Earth (PRI):
Madera Canyon, Arizona is famous for its great variety of hummingbirds – if you know exactly where to look. I had the good fortune to be guided by local expert Bill Forbes and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Bill designed and now manufactures a high-speed camera trigger called a Phototrap and with the aid of that device and his expertise in flash setups I was able to take the photographs you see here. The birds of course are stunningly beautiful and I was delighted by the sound of their wings. Less delightful (though they were remarkably tolerant of human presence) was their intolerance of each other. Almost every encounter between species and even among members of the same species resulted in conflict. Shawnee Riplog-Peterson is the keeper of the hummingbird house at the Sonora Desert Museum. She tells me that males will sometimes drive an adversary right into the ground – leaving them exhausted to the point where they are unable to fly – and that they will even do this with females of their own species. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps at up to 2000 wing-beats a minute, the energy requirements are so great that every found flower needs to be guarded like a treasure. Perhaps, with their brilliant scales and fierce dark eyes, the hummingbirds think themselves dragons. Or maybe they are dragons…
Here’s a slideshow I made of a broad-billed male sipping nectar at a cactus flower. The sound track was recorded using a parabolic microphone, at the same time and place but contains, inevitably, the sounds of other hummingbirds, both wing sound and their high, rather angry calls.
One last treat. Here is 12 minute long recording of hummingbirds feeding, hovering and alas, giving each other grief. Play for as long or as little as you like.