This Field Note is by Joe Brehm, Rural Action Environmental Education Director
“But it had left something with him; as long as the hummingbird had not abandoned the land, somewhere there were still flowers, and they could all go on.”
– Lesli Mormon Silko’s “Ceremony”
I stand on the front steps, frozen, like a mannequin holding a cup of coffee, so as not to disturb the hummingbird. The bite-sized bird, motoring rapidly, hovers as it probes every red flower in the garden, especially scarlet sage. It comes close enough that its tiny tongue is visible, sliding nectar from deep within the flower into its mouth. Foliage bounces and jostles in the hummingbird’s wake, its back shimmering green and gold in the early morning light. I wear a red shirt, and perhaps for this reason the bird zips up first to my chest, and then to eye level. It’s so close I wonder if it considers sipping from my eyeballs. It peers up my nostrils, which could look like less colorful foxglove blooms to a hungry humminbird. Making what must be an excellent choice, the hummingbird does not probe my face for nectar, but goes on to pink-topped cosmos, red runner beans, and flowering tobacco.
Though we know nature is strong and resilient beyond our comprehension, it is so difficult not to worry about animals like the ruby-throated hummingbird, our only breeding species of hummingbird in Southeast Ohio. Luckily our anxious questions do not reach their ears: are they finding enough nectar even though it’s been so dry? Are they putting on enough body weight to fly back south and ACROSS THE OCEAN? Is climate change disrupting the timing of blooming flowers and small edible insects on whom they rely for food? Are the neighbors changing out their feeders often enough (should be every day in the summer heat)? Maybe it’s because they reside at the limits of physics that they appear fragile. I suspect, however, that I am anxious for hummingbirds for the same reasons I am anxious for humans.
Rachel Carson’s intrepid 1962 book, Silent Spring, warned of the potential consequences of things like overuse of pesticides and general destruction of the natural environment. Every year since, those with an “ecological education,” as Aldo Leopold put it, have waited with baited breath for the reassuring sound of spring birdsong: Louisiana waterthrushes singing along small clear streams with heads raised to the heavens, scarlet tanagers’ scratchy melody sounding off from high in the emerging canopy, wood thrushes’ throaty flutes playing in deep misty woods, and the cerulean warbler’s buzzy tornado notes descending from white oak branches. Like Leslie Marmon Silko’s character Tao in her masterpiece novel, Ceremony, we are reassured by the birds, and know that life persists. The hummingbirds have not abandoned the land, and neither will we.
We don’t have a feeder for hummingbirds, but instead focus on growing a diversity of plants, including many with red flowers full of nectar; over 200 plant species now grow in our ⅛ acre of land. I have seen hummingbirds drink from scarlet sage (their absolute favorite), scarlet lobelia, canna lily, cypress vine, cardinal vine, flowering tobacco, larkspur, beebalm, cosmos, sunflowers, scarlet runner beans, and echinacea. Just this morning, I also saw one gleaning insects from damp elm leaves. With food sources spread out, there seems to be less fighting than over feeders. Many of these plants can be purchased from Companion Plants, White’s Mill, and Gabriel Farm and Greenhouse; late summer is actually a great time to plant perennials because they get settled in before winter, ready to make a big push in the spring. If you don’t have a budget for plants, email me and we’ll get you some seeds. I’m sure many other gardening hummingbird lovers would be willing to share, as well. Away from human habitation, patches of spotted jewelweed are very popular to hummingbirds this time of year. And in early spring, Bernd Heinrich observed ruby-throated hummingbirds drinking sap from holes in sugar maples made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
Though you may be seeing more hummingbirds right now – as the young fledge from nests and migration begins – they won’t be around much longer. Summer calls to them from the Southern Hemisphere, and they will answer.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 475 volunteers who have contributed close to 16,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,400 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)