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.