Letters, We Get Mail, CDXXVIII
by Orange

BLOG NOTE: January 03, 2016, Sunday, Downtown Portland Oregon:

We had quite a snowstorm this day, and four hummingbirds ended up sitting out the storm in my room.

This story actually began two days earlier, when a new female Annas Hummingbird came into my room through the open window, and then couldn't figure out how to get back out. I always leave the lower-left window open a bit so that hummingbirds can come and go as they please, but most of them find it a challenge to figure out how to get back out. The logic is simple: they have to exactly retrace their path, going back out the way that they came in, which is through the lower-left-hand window pane. But they don't usually do that; they go to the brightest light, which is the upper-right-hand window pane. So it's a puzzle for the hummingbirds to solve. I call it my Mensa Entrance Exam for Hummingbirds.

None of the females has figured it out, but the dominant male has. He has it down pat. He knows exactly how to come in and go back out in mere seconds. And he does it often. Occasionally, I hear the whir of hummingbird wings in my left ear while I'm typing on the computer, and I turn my head to find myself nose-to-nose with a hummingbird. He is either saying hello, or more likely, informing me that I'm trespassing in his territory. They are highly territorial, and he actually thinks that he owns my room. So he lets me know who is boss, and then he zooms around the room, inspecting, then fills up at the feeder that is inside the room, and then goes back out the window. He can do the whole routine in like fifteen seconds.

So this female came in, and couldn't figure out how to get back out. It took her some time. I always keep a feeder inside the window, so that birds who can't find their way out won't starve while they work on solving the puzzle. She fluttered against the glass windows, and tried about every way except the right way.

The first night that she was in my room, I discovered that she was night-blind. When I turned off the lights, she squeeked in distress and fluttered against the walls and ceiling, and couldn't find a good place to roost and sleep. I had to turn the lights back on and then slowly turn them off one by one, to give her the idea that the sun was setting and she should go to bed. I was surprised at how much light she needed to see. Just one lamp didn't do it, she needed two before she stopped fluttering against the ceiling in a panic. She finally got the idea that the sun was going down, so she went to the feeder for one last fill-up, and then went to the clothes hangers that I hung from the curtain rod for her to roost on, and settled down, and then I turned off the last lights, and she was okay.

The next day, she still didn't find her way out. It occurred to me that perhaps I could catch her at night when she was asleep and put her in a box for safe keeping, and then put her out the window the next morning when it was light. No such luck. As soon as my hand came within one foot of her she flew. She was not out cold and in a torpor, she was far more aware than I thought. So that didn't work. (The reason for the box was because I didn't want to put her out at night when she was night blind.)

The next day, it snowed, so I stopped trying to get her out. She was better off inside. It was a good snowfall, and everything was buried under snow. There was absolutely nothing for a hummingbird to eat except for the sugar in my feeders. So all of the hummingbirds in the neighborhood ended up coming to my feeders to get something to eat.

The next hummingbird to come in was a small female juvenile. This one had hatched out last spring, and wasn't fully grown yet. For some odd reason, the adult female who had been inside for two days immediately attacked her. I don't know why, perhaps she was in a bitchy mood from two days of confinement. She was feeling a bit depressed, thinking that she would never get free, and maybe she would die here alone. But rather than being happy to see another hummingbird, she picked on the child. So the child went and hid in the house-plants that were next to the windows, and fluttered against the glass, trying to get out. That attracted the attention of another male — not the regular dominant male of the neighborhood, but another male who wanted to take over the territory. He had a real conniption, a regular hissy-fit, over seeing that child, and wanted to attack her and drive her away. I can only guess that he wanted her gone because she was not his child. Now that shows a small brain: If he thought ahead, he could have said, "Not my child? Well, I can keep her and raise her right, and next year she can be my wife." No such bright thoughts. So anyway, there they were, the child trying to get out through the glass and the male trying to get in through the glass.

The red-headed hummingbird is a male on the outside of the window glass, who is angrily trying to get in. The smaller green-headed hummingbird is a female child, who is trying to get out through the glass. The child is unaware of the fact that the male is trying to get in to kick her ass and drive her away, because she is not his child. This male is a different male who is trying to take over the territory — different from the dominant male who rules the roost here. This guy is a would-be usurper.

I noticed that the dominant male was inside, sitting in a plant that was just inside the window. He sat in there for a while and got warmed up, and then he said, "Well, I can't be dawdling all day. Got to go." And out the window he went. Two minutes later, he was back, saying, "It sucks out there! Everything is buried under snow, and there is nothing to eat, and I'm freezing my tail off!" So he sat in the house plant for a while, and got warmed up, and then he said, "Well, can't be dawdling all day. Got to go." And out the window he went. Two minutes later, he was back, saying, "It sucks out there! Everything is buried under snow, and there is nothing to eat, and I'm freezing my tail off!" He repeated that cycle three times, and then decided, "The heck with it, I'm staying inside." So he flew into the center of the room.

Then he was able to see all around, and he saw that there was already another hummingbird in the room, sitting on a hanger up in the right-hand corner. He made a bee-line for her. He charged straight at her. At that time, I wasn't sure whether she was a male or a female, because you can't see the irridescent red or green heads if they aren't in bright direct light. But he was sure. He charged right at her, and it looked like he was going to kill her. He chased her around the room, and I said, "Hey! No fighting!" But fighting isn't what he had in mind. Their mating dance is high-energy aerobatics. The male does power dives and swoops and tight turns around the female to impress her with how big and strong he is. The female avoids his charges and does a hard-to-get act, almost as if she is challenging him, asking, "Can you outfly me?" They became like a couple of fighter planes in a dog-fight in a World War I movie, looping around each other, but much faster. Speed up the film a lot. They can do two or three complete loops in one second. They turned into a blur. And somewhere in that blur, he fucked her, in mid-air. Two minutes later, they were sitting on a hanger together, the best of friends. They were petting and stroking each other, and fondling each other, and even kissing. Yes, they actually kiss. They affectionately touched the tips of their beaks together. They carried on like that for hours, just two lovers wrapped up in each other.

Now here's the kicker: Here's the punch line: The next bird that came in the window was his wife. Yes, his mate from last year, with whom he had a child. He just ignored her. He didn't attack her or drive her away; he still accepted her, and she could still eat out of his flowers — or his feeders. He was just all enthused with his new love. Now he seems to have two wives. One woman to whom I told this story quipped, "Oh, so he is a Mormon hummingbird, huh?"

Meanwhile, the juvenile was still hiding in the houseplants and trying to get out through the glass. I had put a tiny feeder down in there with her so that she wouldn't starve, and she was eating out of it. Still, when it had been nearly an hour of her fluttering against the glass, I decided that I wanted to get her out of there. It wouldn't be good for her to just flutter against the glass until she collapsed. So I carefully, gently, caught her against the glass, and closed my hand around her, and pulled her out of there. She just froze in fear. She sat motionless in my hand while I talked to her and told her that I wasn't going to harm her. She sat still for so long that I got a picture of her in my hand:

The juvenile hummingbird, frozen in fear.

Then, when I was trying to gently roll her out of my hand and onto the stem of a poinsettia plant, she realized that I was releasing her, and she flew out of my hand and up against another window. She clung to the middle of the window frame in fear. But she noticed that other hummingbirds were flying back and forth to the feeder that was hanging inside, so she followed. And then went back to her perch on the window. But she gradually calmed down and loosened up, and eventually really looked around, rather than just clinging to the window in a panic. When she looked closely at the other hummingbirds, she suddenly cried out, "Mama!" and flew directly to the wife who came in last. Yes, her mother was in the room. She attached herself to her mother, and clung to her mother for security, and everything changed. Seeing her mother in the room alive and healthy lessened her fears, and she realized that she wasn't in such a bad situation after all. She spent all day sitting by her mother, and cuddled against her mother at night as they slept.

Her clinging to her mother even turned comical. As they were bedding down, the child came in for a landing, and landed right on top of her mother, and knocked her mother off of her perch. The mother squeeked in protest, and flew back up to the hanger. The next time, the child managed to land beside the mother without knocking her off. Then the two cuddled together and went to sleep.

It wasn't a coincidence that her mother was in the room. Hummingbirds are highly territorial. The male stakes out a territory, and defends his plot of flowers. When he takes a mate, he allows her to eat out of his flowers. That makes it possible for her to live and feed babies. The male contributes nothing else to the relationship. He does not help to build the nest, or feed the youngsters. He just defends the territory and allows the female to feed in his territory. When the babies fledge, the mother takes them around and shows them all of the good places to get food. That of course includes my feeders. So both mother and daughter, and father, knew about my feeders, and they came to my feeders to get something to eat when everything else was buried under snow. Then they came inside to get warmed up. And found each other.

While the mother is showing her baby around, when the mother and child run into the father, the mother tells him, "This is your child, our child, so don't be attacking her." The male says, "Oh, my child, huh? Okay." That explains why the dominant male did not attack this child and try to drive her away.

Something else that happened earlier, when the dominant male was going in and out and was outside, was that he saw the juvenile fluttering against the glass, trying to get out. He knew exactly how to get in and out, so he didn't waste any energy trying to go through the glass. He flew over to the open window and came inside, and then flew around the houseplants to where she was, and got in there and took a good look at her. Then he said, "Okay," and turned his back on her and went back into the room. The reason that he didn't attack her or try to drive her away like how the other male was trying to do is because he recognized her as his child.

The first female, the one who had attacked the child, never attacked the child again. Perhaps the child got a pass because she was the daughter of the dominant male, or perhaps the female had just been in a crabby mood from two days of being confined alone. Whatever the reason, her mood improved immensely after the male came in and romanced her and kept her company, and she didn't peck the child again. She just peacefully joined the family, and there they all were: the dominant male and two wives and a daughter, one big happy family.

Four Annas Hummingbirds: the dominant male, two wives, and a daughter.
They are sitting on a plastic coat-hanger that is hanging from the curtain rod. Louvered blinds are in the background.

Hummingbirds are not usually social or flocking birds, but here they are hanging out together and keeping each other company while sitting out the storm.

Annas Hummingbirds
Mother and daughter hummingbirds. The mother is on the right. And above, another is coming in for a landing.

3 Annas Hummingbirds
Three Annas Hummingbirds, sitting in a coat-hanger. The small child is on the left. And I believe that the large one in the middle is the male.

3 Annas Hummingbirds
Three Annas Hummingbirds

After the snow storm was over, it took two days to get all of the hummingbirds out of my room. I opened the window wide, and slowly moved the feeder towards the opening, until it was right in front of the open window. One by one, as the hummingbirds were feeding at the feeder, they noticed that there was a big opening right beside them, and they gave it a try, and went on out.

When there was only one female left in the room, the male came back in and visited with a female who had not gotten out yet. I think that was his new fling. He left, and then, a little while later, she finally got the idea and out she went.

[More bird photos below, here.]

I realize that I never told the story of how the little male hummingbird got to be so tame and able to come and go from my room so easily:

One day, I was typing at the computer when I heard some pathetic chirping. This was not ordinary hummingbird chirping; it sounded more like crying. I got the feeling that something was wrong. I went to the window and looked, and found a hummingbird who had one wing glued to the window sill, and he couldn't get free. The window sill is slanted a little bit, and it caused the feeder to be tilted enough to leak out some sugar-water, which dried and formed a very sticky surface. When the hummingbird was feeding, his wing hit the sticky patch and he was stuck.

I realized that I couldn't just pull him off of the sill; that would rip out a bunch of his feathers, and besides being very painful for him, it could kill him. If his flying feathers were ripped out of one wing, he couldn't fly and get more food, so he would die.

I had a brainstorm, and thought of using warm water to wash the sugar away. It worked and liberated the little guy. By then he had passed out in fear. These hummingbirds do a funny thing of passing out when they are extremely afraid. They just go catatonic, frozen in fear. So I gently scooped him up, and brought him inside, and dried him off, and put him on my bed while I mixed up some sugar water for him to drink, to revive him.

Just as I was touching an eyedropper with sugar-water to his beak, he woke up and flew. But he couldn't figure out how to get out, so he just flew around the room. I ended up having a house guest for two days. I made sure that there was a good feeder inside the room, always full of fresh sugar-water, so that he wouldn't starve, and gave him time to figure out the "Hummingbird Mensa Entrance Exam". That is, how to use the one open window to come and go.

Luckily, I just happened to be watching him when he figured it out. I had moved the feeder down until it was hanging from the lower edge of the raised window. Thus the feeder was essentially half indoors and half outdoors. He was feeding, and went from one plastic flower to the next. It's just instinctive behavior for them to go from flower to flower. Ordinarily, they empty a flower of its nector in just one slurp, and have to go to the next flower for another slurp. So he worked his way around the feeder, eating out of each plastic flower in turn. When he went halfways around the feeder, he had the sudden realization that he was outside.

He was so shocked that he had to sit down on a stem of a basil plant that I had growing out the window and think things over. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head. He looked in the window and saw my room, and me at the far end. Then he looked around. Down, it was 5 stories to the ground. But inside, the floor was only three feet down. Outside, the sky was immeasurably high, but inside, the ceiling was right there, 8 feet up. Inside, the space was very small, hardly enough room for a hummingbird to fly around in. Outside, the streets went on for miles. Inside it was warm and dry and sunny (electric lights), while outside, the sky was dark, and it was cool and rainy. Inside, food was plentiful, while outside, food was hard to find.

He realized that the window was like a magic doorway between two worlds. He felt like he had just fallen down Alice's magic rabbit hole. Then he looked back and forth, and up and down, considering things. Comfort inside, or freedom outside? What to do?

He started fluttering his wings in nervous anticipation, trying to decide. He thought things over for several minutes, which is a very long time for a hummingbird to sit and think things over.

Then he decided. Suddenly he took off like a rocket and was gone.

However, he couldn't have been too traumatized by his experience, because half an hour later, he came back and ate out of the feeder again. But he didn't come inside.

A few days later, he had another brainstorm. He realized that he didn't have to choose one world or the other. He could have both. He realized that he could use the window as a magic doorway between the two worlds, and come and go as he pleased.

And he has been doing that ever since.

BLOG NOTE: 2016.01.20:

I was awakened this morning by the whirr of hummingbird wings and a blast of cool air on my face. I opened my eyes to see a hummingbird hovering over my head — the male, I think. I think he came in to explore, and check me out. When he saw that I was awake, he zoomed back out the open window, without any fluttering against the glass. He has the routine of getting in and out down pat.

What a nice way to be awakened. It sure beats the BEEP-BEEP of an alarm clock.

By the way, I've discovered that he comes in at other times too. Sometimes, when I come home, I open the door and find him inside, and he says, "Eeek! The giant is back!" and flees out the open window.

Apparently, he likes to hang out in my room. He likes my window garden. And he's not all that afraid of me, but he does get frightened by sudden movements towards him. I'd be a little afraid too, if something 3000 times as large as me was lunging towards me.

BLOG NOTE: 2016.03.01:

We had a new first with the hummingbirds today. One of them, the dominant male, I think, came on into my room and took a nap. Right in front of me. He has become so tame and trusting that he isn't afraid to go to sleep near me. Now that is really trusting.

I'm almost certain that he is one of the hummingbirds that sat out the snowstorm with me, because he not only knows how to get in and out — he has solved the Hummingbird Mensa Entrance Exam — he has also lost his fear of me.

He came right in the open window, and then filled up at the feeder inside the room, and then went to the gigantic Calla Lilly plant that is up against the window, and picked out just the right stem, and settled down on it and took a nap. He knew that I was there — I was only 6 or 8 feet away from him, sitting at the computer, typing, and since I am about 3000 times bigger than him, he couldn't miss me. Nevertheless, he ignored me. He seems to have come to the conclusion that I don't eat hummingbirds, which is what I've been telling him all along. Now he believes it. So he just settled down and took a nap in front of me, not worrying about me being there.

After half an hour, he woke up and flew around the windows. He seemed to be inspecting, to see if a new opening had developed. He didn't flutter against the glass; he just examined each window in turn. Finding no new openings, he went down and to the left, to the open window. He paused at the indoor feeder to fill up again, and then out the window he went.

I guess he likes my window garden. I have all of the house plants that will fit crammed against the windows. It's like a small green oasis in a desert of concrete, steel, and glass. And since these little hummingbirds are green, they like to sit in the middle of green plants, where they are camoflaged. I seem to have a little city park for hummingbirds.

CORRECTION: 2016.04.13:

It seems that the big beautiful plant that I have is not a Calla Lilly after all, it is something called a "Peace Lilly":

Thanks to Alternet for the tip:

The one correction that I have to the Wikipedia article is that it does not thrive on "little water"; my plant drinks like a fish, and wilts as soon as it runs out of water. The "little sunlight" part is true: I was actually given it by a gardener in Forest Grove who explained that he was overloaded with plants that somebody gave him, and that this one would die without getting inside out of the sun. It was just a tiny baby plant then, in a tiny pot, but he had far too many that someone had dumped on him. So I took it inside, and it promptly dropped all of its leaves — they were sunburned. But with plenty of water and plant food and tender loving care, it grew a whole new set of leaves, and over the following 5 years has grown into a huge monster that is currently flowering. Oh, and it also survived three months of being in a storage locker before I could move it out.

Peace Lilly
Peace Lilly

January 04, 2016, Monday, :

Canada Goose goslings

Canada Goose goslings

Canada Goose goslings

Canada Goose goslings

[The story of the birds continues here.]

NOTE: 2016.05.20:

I seem to have a hummingbird who likes the Grateful Dead, or at least their keyboard player.

I had my computer working as a juke-box, playing Dead concert tapes, and Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad was playing, and Brent Mydland was doing a jam way up on the tinkly high notes of the piano. A hummingbird came to a feeder hanging in my open window to fill up, and then he sat there and listened as Brent played. Usually, the hummingbirds just fly away as soon as they have eaten, but not this time. He seemed to be really listening.

Hummingbirds have very, very high-pitched hearing. Their ears are so tiny that they can hear sounds that are impossible for us to detect. It's like dogs and dog whistles, but much more extreme. We, on the other hand, can hear bass notes that the hummingbirds cannot hear. It's like us and elephants. A woman biologist whose father was a church organist discovered that the elephants were talking to each other with sub-bass notes like the notes that come out of a 32-foot pipe of a giant church organ, which are so low that we cannot hear them — we feel them in our stomachs. The hummingbirds have the same problem with our music and our sounds. It's all too low for them. Except for the highest notes that we can hear. Those will be mid-range to low notes to a hummingbird.

So there we were, with Brent jamming on the highest notes on the piano, making these tinny tinkly high notes, and the hummingbird was hearing it and listening to it. He sat there until the song ended, and then flew away.

By the way, if you want Grateful Dead concert tapes, or a lot of other musician's concerts — all legal — you can download them from www.shnflac.net They are a great bunch of people who produce amazingly good recordings. They use the most sophisticated tools to eliminate noise and distortion and correct pitch and such. So join — it's free — and maybe even donate some money to them to help keep the project going. I do.

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Last updated 13 March 2019.
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