From a clematis-covered pergola a dozen feet outside the window over my kitchen sink hangs a hummingbird feeder. I planned it this way. Nature’s garden gifts often come in the form of fleeting moments; if I’m not Johnny-on-the-spot to experience them, pffft, the opportunity is gone. The intimate world of the hummingbird feeder is like that. I cannot arbitrarily decide that “I want to see something wonderful, so I’ll take ten seconds out of my cluttered day and watch the garden.” It doesn’t work that way. But I have structured my surroundings so that, even as I tend to routine chores, within my field of vision are the spots where the magic might occur: the birdbath, the birdhouse, the hummingbird feeder.
Last night, an early spring storm pounded our community. Two inches of rain fell in less than an hour, imperiling unprepared drivers and knocking the buttercup-yellow faces of the daffodils along the freeway right down into the mud. Storms as heavy as this one, like late-season freezes, may do some damage, but the morning after—as though Mother Nature were offering an apology— often dawns brilliantly, enhancing every facet of the landscape. The air is nippy, not icy cold but invigorating, pulsating with new life and new possibilities. Colors boast psychedelic intensity, reflected in each raindrop that clings to a leaf or swelling bud. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, and a dozen bird species emerge from their shelters in search of breakfast and, more urgently, a mate.
This is one of those mornings, fairly glittering and pulsating with possibilities. As I stand at the kitchen counter grinding coffee beans, my attention is focused outside. Suddenly the sun picks up movement at the hummingbird feeder: a flash of copper, glowing like a hot coal, gone in an instant.
The regulars at my feeder are Anna hummingbirds, the females generally a dull, uninspiring greenish-brown but the males adorned in bright green with an otherworldly headscarf of iridescent hot pink. I see them all the time. They’re my friends, so predictable that the males will chirp loudly and swoop down and hover in front of me in the garden when the feeder is empty. Well, I call it a chirp; I understand they actually make the sound with their tail feathers as they fly a hundred feet into the air and then plummet at dizzying speeds back toward the earth.
But this isn’t an Anna. I watch intently. There it is again, that brief fiery glow of copper! Then a third time, hovering in the sunshine near the feeder. It’s smaller than an Anna, the color of a newly minted penny.
More than thirty years ago, my close friend and garden mentor, Harriett Hendrickson, taught me about Rufous hummingbirds. The most belligerent of all the hummers, they hold the title for unparalleled maneuverability. The Rufous are also migratory, traveling thousands of miles each season from their winter habitat in Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to their preferred breeding grounds in western Canada and Alaska. In the spring, some of them follow a route that passes through the Sierra Nevada foothills in early April, and in late summer they head south again by a more easterly route, over the Rocky Mountains.
So the timing is right. It’s April 10th. My garden visitor is a Rufous.
As I watch, an Anna male darts toward the feeder. But the Rufous will have none of it. Though much smaller than the Anna, the feisty orange newcomer ruthlessly drives the Anna off, swooping and diving in a fury of whirring russet-colored wings, then returns to keep watch from a branch of the pink clematis vine covering the pergola, just beginning to leaf out. Over and over, the Anna returns and they skirmish, but each time, the Rufous wins the dogfight and triumphantly returns to his post on the vine to guard the feeder. He’s a selfish little beast. I never see him take a drink, but he’s not about to share his prize.
After fifteen minutes or so, I tear myself away from the ongoing war and serve breakfast, put in a load of wash, and then sit down at my computer to try to write. Suddenly, the Anna male is hovering just outside the window above my desk. Without warning, he darts forward and actually pecks on the window! Just a brief peck, but unmistakably meant for me. “Can’t you do something?” he seems to implore me. “It’s our feeder! That trashy orange pipsqueak doesn’t belong here! Can’t you make him go away?”
The action of the Anna confirms what I’ve long suspected; he actually is communicating with me! Except for crows—and maybe eagles and hawks—I’ve never heard much about the intelligence of wild birds, but I’m certain now they can and do try to interact with humans. As with most of the delightful gifts from my garden, all it takes is a bit of observing and listening—and keeping the feeder clean and well-stocked.
Two days later, the Rufous is gone. The Annas are peaceably dipping their needle-like beaks into the nectar of the feeder, two and three at a time. Do you suppose I got the credit?