Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I am convinced that the hummingbirds frequenting my feeders communicate with me. No, the heat hasn't affected my good senses. After all, it's not like we discuss politics or Proust or trade jabs. The conversation isn't spoken, so I don't hear tiny voices, but the topic is something very dear to a hummingbird's heart - food.

Over the years, I have observed hummers check the feeder, not sample the sweet nectar inside and simply fly up to the window, then move horizontally in a deliberate, sometimes jerky pattern. They do this once or twice before flying off. Sometimes they return and follow the same pattern.

Actually, it did not take long to discover why they did this little dance. The nectar wasn't so sweet after all. It had become soured by the heat of day or had disappeared completely and the fluid needed a refill. So, I made up new batches of sugar water, cleaned the feeders and refilled them.

Happy hummers. I know that because they returned, took a long drink, then hovered in front of the picture window and moved vertically a few times before flying off to another location. Side to side = "bad food," up and down = "we like this snack."

Scientists have discovered that communications does occur across species, and we are aware of that to some degree, too. Bats are known to be able to send out a sort of radar signal, and decipher the echo as their own, a colleague's or a sound emitted by an insect, or some other creature. And numerous studies have discussed the way dolphins communicate with humans. Same with pets - dogs, cats. When they need attention, pet owners know it by the animal's body language or by their whimpering. When those pets are hungry, they let us know.

In an ultimate example of cross-species communication and cooperation, I once heard a story about a fishing village that had a unique relationship with a pod of killer whales. It seems the killer whales knew where the larger whales were, the ones the fishermen were after. Not having the means to bring down these larger beasts, the killer whales showed fishermen the location. Their quest was simply for the tongues, leaving the rest of the animal to feed the fishermen and their families. A symbiotic relationship constructed through communication.

My hummers are not unique. I have heard of others in different states that hover inches away from a homeowner (the food provider's) face, but buzzing close to the ears of visitors they do not recognize, apparently to say "hello," or "who the hell are you?" I am certain there are plenty of other examples of hummingbird antics that really are means of communicating with humans.

Communications itself is a fascinating subject. The thought that I can write this with a series of symbols and you can look at them, decipher their meaning and maybe even create your own group of symbols in answer to mine is heady stuff. And that doesn't even begin to touch communicating through the spoken word, or art, photography, video, sounds or dance. But the concept of communicating with animals outside the human realm is, to me, nothing short of incredible.


dot said...

Love this, Bob! I knew hummers were fascinating, but had no idea to what extent.
Thank you so much. And glad you're back in your cafe.

Steven Dempsey said...

Excellent article Bob and one that's close to my own heart. The notion of communication is topmost in my mind almost daily. I think about it in three ways.

1. The power of influence I have over those with whom I speak. For instance, If I exude a friendly demeanor, chances are the other person will reciprocate. If I am irritable or impatient, on the other hand, I will probably evoke the same kind of attitude in the person. So much is implied and sometimes miscommunicated in an our attitude. It sometimes leads to the "what's that supposed to mean?!" response to a relatively innocent remark. With this in mind, I really do try to keep my attitude the best it can be. We have the power to empower or disable others just by the order in which we assemble our words.

2. My cat speaks to me whenever she gets the chance. Mostly my family interprets her whimpers and meows as calls of hunger. I believe she is trying to communicate much more than that. Sometimes a meow can mean "get off the damn computer and rub on me"... Other times it can mean "I don't want to be disturbed" and then there's the old classic meow that means "Come quickly! The barn's on fire!", like in the old Lassie movies. Day by day I try to decode my cat's many sounds but with little luck. She has the same dilemma when it comes to my human indeciperables. Still, my quest goes on to find the key to feline speak.

3. Finally, as a photographer, my biggest challenge is to communicate an idea that is three dimensional and multifaceted into a two-dimensional medium. Sometimes the photographic process itself creates something independent of reality that can be almost hyper-real. What I mean is that the viewer can sometimes see a side of a person (for instance) that is revealed in a still photograph but was never apparent in the many years they have known them. The flat, seemingly lifeless representation, has an unseen depth, beyond what we understand as a third dimension, it's the dimension of our imagination. This is communication at it's most profound. Photography, for me, is a gift that keeps on giving. No matter how exacting I can be in terms of what I want to capture and how meticulous I go about doing it, I am almost always surprised in some way by what the final photograph becomes.

Maybe I'm rambling here but but your article made me sit up and think about the notion of communication and the many guises we encounter at every juncture.

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