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The Tender Beauty of Being Embodied

As spring brightens and the living world swells with surging vitality, it is the hummingbirds that evoke my continual respect. Most of Canada, given its latitude, has one dominant species of hummingbird, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, although there are five species that do visit this far north. But the little hummingbird that has captured my heart is the Anna’s Hummingbird. The little Annas have been moving northward up the Pacific coast over decades, from southern California and the Baja peninsula, now reaching as far north as Alaska. However, they are not just a fair-weathered friend. These little Annas are only about 3 ½ to 3 ¾ inches (8-10 cm) and 0.1- 0.2 ozs (3-5 grams), about the weight of a heaping teaspoon of sugar or a nickel. Yet, the little Annas stay here all winter in contrast to most hummingbirds which breed and nest in North America and migrate south, usually to Central America, for our winters. Persisting through winter, like the Annas, is extraordinary once you understand the biology of hummingbirds and the reality of west coast winters!

Hummingbirds have been revered in many Indigenous cultures, particularly in Central and South America, for good reason. Hummingbirds are often considered the only birds who can fly forwards, backwards, up, and down, as well as hover, seemingly motionless in place. While there are other birds that can do some of these flying feats, it is the hummingbird who is the artist of all these aerial maneuvers. In fact, they are so fast and nimble as flyers, they have no fear and have been known to chase off eagles many times their size.

Hummingbirds beat their stiff wings about 50-55 times per second to keep themselves aloft, with powerful up as well as down strokes. But not only that, their wings make a figure 8 movement, although you would be hard pressed to see that without a slow-motion camera. A hovering hummingbird breathes 500 times a minute, and when resting 300 times a minute. All this hyperactivity and small size means that they need high calories and constant refueling. The only way they can sleep or withstand the penetrating cold of torrential rain in West Coast winter is to go into “torpor,” like hibernation, where they reduce most of their metabolic processes…such as breathing and heart rate. The little Annas reduce their metabolic rate to less than 5%, the most significant rate of any bird, giving them the resilience to survive here. I have often seen them perched on a bare branch wobbling erratically, appearing like they might fall off, but they are simply resting. Fluffing up their feathers too, like these at our feeder, they can live through near freezing temperatures, including in the high Andes.

I was surprised to learn hummingbirds can only be found in the Americas, from Alaska and the Yukon down to the tip of Chile and Argentina. Yet, there are over 300 species of hummers, some as small as bees, actually called bee hummingbirds. The smallest, the zunzuncito, is in Cuba and now Florida, but this family also includes the Ruby-Throated. The largest hummer, at 8 ½ inches (22 cm), lives in the high, dry open country in Columbia, Chile, and Argentina, annually migrating over the Andes. Only 29 species are found in both the most northerly or southerly regions of the Americas.

In its migration, the Ruby-Throated hummingbird flies 500 hundred miles (800 km) across the Gulf of Mexico all in one flight, going 2500 miles in total for its migration. The Calliope is the smallest migrating bird in the world! Costa Rica is the hot spot for hummingbirds…where we saw feeders which were city center to large numbers of extravagantly colored hummers. The place was literally “humming.”

Hummingbirds can do such distance travelling because they fuel up on nectar, or sugar, rather than needing to rely solely on fat like other birds. They typically drink almost half their weight in sucrose a day, which is automatically converted into energy, so they can refuel quickly as they travel. However, they do need some fat, and thus just before migrating north or south, they turn to insects for their diet. Every spring, as I was getting my garden beds ready for planting on the East Coast, the hummingbirds would arrive. One would hover eye level in front of me about 3 feet away and chatter. I always interpreted this as “We have arrived!…you can celebrate by putting out the feeders please!!” They have no trouble asserting their needs and I certainly oblige.

Brazilians call hummingbirds “flower-kissers” or beija-flores. Indeed, they have evolved in close relationship with flowers, so that the shape and length of the bill on different hummers reflects the specific flowers they feed from. In this long-time partnership, not only are the hummingbirds fed, but they pollinate the flowers. Some bills are very long and slender, called sword-billed hummingbirds, who feed in deep, tubular flowers. Other are short and curved like this little hermit hummingbird, fit to flower shape. They have a split tongue with fine hairs that enable them to take up nectar. We have feeders up all year, dissolving 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups of water. Any more sugar is dangerous as this is the only way they get their drinking water as well. They use the feeder, but certainly not exclusively. They have a phenomenal spatial memory and are attuned to how long it takes for different flowers to replenish their nectar stores. I plant fuchsias and nicotiana, which they feed on well into December.

One spring, I had a concussion and could not read, watch TV, or drive, anything with much brain power. So, I took to sitting on my East Coast deck watching the hummingbirds. It was mating season, and the males were executing their dramatic aerial dances, in a large U shape. They fly up high then drop nearly to the ground, recorded to be as much as 60 miles per hour, then swing to the side, before rising again. While I could not see any females around me, I was certainly enjoying their dance! They would sing in buzzes and trills while their feathers whistled and rattled. The color of the males is striking at this time of year, as they extend their gorgets for a full colour display, like this little calliope, flashing from the trees.

For such a lovely bird, often considered akin to the fairy folk or nymphs, reflected in their names and silhouette, they are fierce! Their tiny nests made of moss, fern, lichen and spider’s webbing look like fairy homes. However, the males are aggressively territorial, in this case around our feeders, which was their courtship territory. So, size has no bearing on boldness. The males do not assist in nesting or raising the two young, even protecting the feeder from the females and fledglings, with chattering squeeks and clattering wings. This seems counterproductive for species reproduction, but the result is the females become “trapliners” in feeding along a broad route of flowers every day while teaching their young the ways of the hummingbird. That said, I did notice the young and females flit in for a drink when the male was away. They definitely relax after the males leave for migration first.

Often, when watering the garden by hand with the hose, hummingbirds hover right in front of me. It took a while to realize that they were not trying to drink, but rather were bathing in the spray, and playing, which they like to do daily. They shower in the rain or in waterfall spray, of any size, even a tiny backyard fountain. Then they perch and preen their feathers.

Hummingbirds look like glittering jewels, which is why many of their names are of jewels…ruby, topaz, emeralds, and mountain gems…as well as metals, such as the bronzes. John James Audubon referred to hummingbirds as “glittering fragments of the rainbow” referring to the iridescent nature of their tiny feathers. The pigment and construction of the feathers with little pockets of air maximizes the sun’s rays, enabling light to strike multiple surfaces and refract in a dazzling way, much like an airborne soap bubble…or rainbow! Some hummers lean toward the red end of the spectrum, like the Rufous Hummingbirds, and others toward the violet end, like the Violetears. The Aztecs and Hopi consider them their warrior heroes come back as hummingbirds, to enjoy the nectar of life. Given hummingbird’s relationship to the sun, they also consider them a messenger of the sun, a giver of fire, and the masculine principle, as the “fertilizer” of flowers. For the Squamish here in BC, they carve hummingbird images as symbols of beauty and intelligence as well as bringers of love and healing.

The year 2022 has not been a kind one yet, a life and death year. I lost my father, some friends have become quite ill with COVID or other life-threatening illnesses, the ongoing waves of the pandemic wearing at one’s sanity and patience, and then 20th century violence continuing in the Russian war on the small but fierce Ukraine, as well as ongoing wars in Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Tigray, and Afghanistan, to name a few. I think of what all my ancestors endured - centuries of war, poverty, illness, and cruelty like so many other families - including close to Kiev, fiercely protecting their autonomy. Sadly, hummingbird lives are also at stake, as their habitat continues to shrink.

As I watch the little Annas I see the joy and tenderness of being embodied, one paradox of life. I am reminded of the deep privilege in being alive, for however long we have. Our beloved bodies enable a deep sensory awareness of the sensuous world, living and breathing all around us. The delicate beauty and intoxicating aromas of the emerging flowers, the intricacy of pattern echoed in the complexity of hummingbird feathers and fern leaves, enable us to put one foot in front of the other, embracing the beauty of each moment. We can confidently protect our own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others, individually and collectively. We can love fiercely, even in the face of evil. Inspired by Hummingbird’s endurance, we can continue on, finding ways to protect the life and beauty of Earth, who holds our lives so preciously.

Embracing the magic of Hummingbird, we can grow more respectful in ways of being, perceiving all our relations. Life is fragile. Yet Life is also resilient as the long history of Earth tells us. Each day, Father Sun kisses Mother Earth tenderly and warmly, tingling her juices and setting them flowing. Our cheeks too are kissed by Sun as we feel our energy rising, our part in this spring renewal drama. Our belongingness in the cosmos is spoken to us each day —in the movement of the stars guiding us each evening, the symphony of bird song that wakes us each day, the flashing flight of feathers that brings joy to our hearts—all helping us drink deeply of the nectar of embodied life, with which we have been graced.

Thanks to Ian Waugh for our hummingbird photos; to Ronald Orenstein for the research in his lovely book called Hummingbirds together with the photography of Michael and Patricia Fogden; to Richard Cannings, Tom Aversa and Hal Opperman for Birds of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, the Cornell Bird Lab, and Ralph Canoessa for his photo of the sword-billed hummingbird.


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