Thursday, March 30, 2006

Howard the Hummingbird

Note: I wrote this piece last fall after observing the real Howard in my backyard. Since these little winged critters are due back in less than a month, I thought it fitting to remember.

It’s September now, which means those mercurial winged summer visitors will soon be leaving for warmer climates. September, while marking the beginning of the next season, also marks the end of those aerial acrobatic feats I’ve enjoyed for the past five months. Hummingbirds seem to zip into our lives suddenly in late spring, then leave just as suddenly at the onset of autumn. I’ll miss watching them chase each other in wild dogfights all over my backyard. I’ll miss their loud chatter - louder than seems could be emitted from such tiny creatures. But travel they must, to follow the warmth and I can certainly understand their need for warmth. Maybe even the warmth of going home. It’s easy for me to think that this is their home – my yard, I mean. It’s another thing altogether to think home for them may be across the waters in some South American locale.

As much food as these little birds consume all the while they’re here makes me wonder how they could possibly make it all the way across the Gulf of Mexico on just one stomach of fuel. That’s a long way for something with a 1200 beat per minute heart rate. Just the energy it takes to keep that little pump pounding has got to be a number akin to the size of the national debt. Then again, it may be the adrenaline rush from knowing they are headed home that keeps those wings cutting the air.

But there’s this one guy in particular I worry about. Howard I call him. No, no particular reason why his name is Howard, it just is. First thing I thought of when I saw him. Maybe that means something and should be further analyzed, but I’m not going to do it. At least not in front of you. Anyway, Howard was a new hummingbird arrival this year, and he had put on some ounces over the summer, let me tell you. We always advise our kids that too much sugar will make them fat and I guess it’s the same for hummingbirds. If there is such a thing in the hummingbird world, then old Howard is a real porker.

I watched Howard land on his favorite hummingbird feeder and I swear the thing tipped toward him as he perched there. For certain, he was never in any hurry to leave, resulting in a lack of proper exercise which no doubt added to Howard’s girth. He’d while away the dog days by taking long draws of the red syrup and hanging out for a while just taking in the scenery and enjoying life. None of the other hummingbirds tried to shoo Howard away, either. I guess his size was intimidating to other hummers. Or maybe he had a reputation as a tough bird in hummingbird circles. I don’t know. I just know the guy could hold his weight in simulated nectar and never even let on that he was the least bit inclined to work it off. I also know that when this husky fellow has to vent, look out below! How could such a (relatively) small bird make such a big … well, you know.

The reason I worry about Howard is that, like I alluded to earlier, it’s a long way to South America. And over vast stretches of water with no where to light for a few moments’ rest. If Howard’s not getting any exercise now, how’s he supposed to get in shape for the journey of his life? Doesn’t he care about going home (or on an extended vacation, whichever the case might be)? Really. It would be like you or me preparing for the Boston Marathon by laying in front of our television sets, eating Krispy Kremes and washing them down with non-diet, full strength sodas by the liter!

I wish I could speak hummingbirdese. Maybe I could talk some sense into Howard before it was too late. Better yet, I wish I could come up with some kind of hummingbird treadmill or maybe a fan to offer Howard some wind resistance so he could do a little isometric flying and burn off some of that excess flab he’s carrying around. But I have a feeling Howard wouldn’t listen to me anyway, and he would probably use the treadmill and fan once or twice then put them in the corner to gather dust, or to be used as a sort of hummingbird shelf for storing whatever it is hummingbirds have a notion to collect.

Can hummingbirds get heart attacks? Can you imagine what would happen to something beating 1200 times a minute when the brakes are slammed and it goes to zero in an instant? That can’t be pretty. So what’s up, Howard? Don’t hummingbirds think of things like that? And doesn’t it just kill you to be surrounded by svelte young hummingbird babes and sleek hummingbird dudes? That should be encouragement enough to drop off a few grams at least.

But, Howard doesn’t look like a bird that would take advice from a human. I think he has already made up his mind. Oh, he’ll probably set out on that journey, all right. Instincts alone will make that decision for him. And I’ll bet the rest of Howard’s plan is wait and see. Wait and see if his weight will hamper the flight. Wait and see if he falls too far behind the rest of the hummers and loses his bearings. Wait and see if his chest starts heaving and struggling for every breath. Wait and see. Poor Howard.

I do worry about him. I hope he has a plan, and I hope it all works out just the way he wants. But what I hope more than anything else is that I get to see old Howard again next spring. Until then, Godspeed, Howard. Godspeed.