Nature & Civilization

Flying Jewel

By David Derezotes

A single parent mom moves in.

Invisible with speed, a tiny blur buzzes up to a perch above our front door. It’s mid-May and Salt Lake is still in a wet cold spring. The hummers started arriving in April and already are fighting over the feeder we hung on the back porch.

Sitting by the window in the evening, we notice her busyness.

“That guy keeps going up there, what’s it doing?”

The next day it becomes more obvious. A puffy cloud of fuzz is being spun on the lattice under the portico. The foundation for a nest!

Being a nature nerd, I go online to find out more.

Archilochus alexandri. The Black Chinned, one of the most widespread Utah hummingbird species. Weighing about 3½ grams and about 8¼ centimeters long, it was named after a Dr. Alexandre, who was the first European to “discover” the species in what is now Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

Knowing that Indigenous People must have known about these magical animals for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years before the doctor, I search for more information.

In ancient times, hummingbirds were considered sacred and connected with royal leaders and warriors. For example, the hummer was a divine animal connected with Huitzilopochtli, an important sun and war god of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Huitzilopochtli was often depicted in traditional art as a hummingbird or eagle. The Mayans tell the story of how the hummingbird is the sun in disguise, wooing a woman who is disguised as the moon. Probably the biggest tribute to the hummer is the giant Nazca hummer geoglyph constructed on the arid coastal plain of what is now Peru maybe 20 centuries ago, measuring about 107 yards long and 72 yards wide.

Hummers are ancient beings; the first evolved about 22 million years ago. In fact, hummers are dinosaurs, according to paleontologists. After most dinosaurs died off about 65 million years ago, some of the feathered versions continued on, evolving into the different bird species we have today.

Our new guest is carrying a tiny bit of what looks like spider web in her beak. She zips up to the nest and deaccelerates to a stop in far less than a second. Scientists have found that hummers can flap their wings in their unique figure-eight pattern up to 70 times a second and when flying their heart can beat up to an incredible 1,260 times a minute, returning to an average of 480 times per minute at rest. What it is like to live in such an accelerated state? These animals must experience life in a completely differently way than we do.

Many tribes in what is now Central and North America see hummingbirds as spiritual messengers between worlds, keeping nature and spirit in balance and often associated with integrity, beauty, harmony and hard work. Hummers are also seen as healers and bringers of love, joy and good fortune; in Central America, they may bring love to those who are lucky enough to see them. Some ancient people living in what now is known as the Caribbean thought they carry the spirits of their ancestors, and the Taino also saw hummers as the pollinators who bring new life and rebirth to the world. The Hopi have the Tocha Kachina, a hummingbird spirit animal favored by the tribe, and along with the Zuni and Pueblo believe that they ask the gods to bring rain to people. The hummingbird animal totem is still said today to assist people in self-discovery and to provide us with pathways to self-expression and awareness.

Native only to the Americas, hummers are often seen as magical and special animals. The Spanish called the birds Joyas Voladores, which meant Flying Jewels.

Flying Jewel

That’s a good name for our new guest. According to the experts it typically takes a hummer about six days to build a nest, which is about how much time our Flying Jewel needed. The nest is typically built 10 to 90 feet high in trees or shrubs, but our visitor’s nest is maybe eight feet high and is on our porch. The Black-Chin typically builds a nest that has a deep cup with a rim curved inward, but this hummer’s nest is not so deep or curved, perhaps because of the limited room below the roof.

Hummers are regular immigrants, international travelers who often migrate across the southern U.S. border with Mexico. They do not recognize the arbitrary lines we humans draw across the globe, that separate us from each other, and that provide a rationale for some people to hate those on the other side. Partners in Flight reports a breeding population of about five million, with 1% breeding in Canada, 86% spending at least some time in the U.S., and nearly 100% spending time in Mexico.

As her nest nears completion, Flying Jewel starts to spend time sitting in her creation. She has woven tiny fibers, leaves, and twigs together with spider silk so that the nest can stretch as the young grow.

The books say that she typically lays two eggs, the size of coffee beans, one each morning over a two-day period. We are curious, but we do not want to disturb her by climbing up to see what is going in.

The books also say that the hummer mother will buzz other birds, as well as other animals who approach the nest, including humans. Occasionally she buzzes us, but usually takes off every time we use the front door. We agree to go around the house as much as possible and enter in the backyard. I hope she appreciates the effort we make as we wait for her to lay and incubate her eggs, and she does seem to start to recognize that we are friendly towards her.

A new generation

Then one day Flying Jewel changes her behavior. We read that the mother typically lays her two eggs on two consecutive mornings. A black-chinned hummingbird’s tiny white eggs are only about half an inch long and about a third of an inch wide. Incubation period is 12-16 days and the nesting period is about 21 days. We observe her now sitting on her nest, leaving only briefly to feed herself. She catches small insects in flight, on plants and on the ground, and takes nectar from flowers by extending her tongue into the corolla while hovering.

We guess that a baby has hatched when Flying Jewel starts bringing food back to the nest. We watch her feed her young by regurgitating bugs and nectar into her baby’s mouth. After a few days we start to see the tops of tiny mouths, opening up after she lands with more food. The two babies grow at an impressive rate and we see more and more of their bodies emerging out of the nest as the days pass.

Flying Jewel works hard, and we wonder where the father is. The literature clearly states that the male Archilochus alexandri does not help with nest building or care of the young, but it is difficult to find an explanation of why that is. Although in most animal species females care for offspring, male parenting and incubating is most common in birds. Nature does not seem to like to waste resources, and evolution seems to favor reproductive success, so one wonders why the male Black Chin does not help out in ensuring its children’s survival. But then, it is perhaps equally difficult to understand the neglect that some human fathers show towards their children as well.

Juvenile hummingbirds fledge on average 18 to 28 days after hatching. Gradually they grow so big that the mother has to feed them while perched outside of the nest. We watch the babies test their wings, holding onto the nest with their small feet as they practice taking off. We go on “fledge watch,” focusing on the nest in the mornings when they are reported to be most likely to try their wings.

One morning, we notice that one baby has left the nest without our oversight. Determined, we double our efforts to see if we can observe the second baby leave.

We are blessed. The second baby flies a few feet and then clings to the porch railing, maybe four feet above the ground. The mother hovers nearby, perhaps even lightly nudging the baby with her long bill, as if to encourage another take off. Finally the baby flies off again, this time dropping to the porch cement. Again mom nudges, and the baby continues in the air maybe 10 feet to a flowering plant in the yard. A few long seconds later, the baby manages to fly up to the lowest branch of the big ash.

Success! We are happy to see the children now more on their own. With our own human children successfully “fledged,” the babies have become our first adopted children.

The last weeks we have seen the babies flying around the neighborhood. We can identify them by their coloring, size and behavior. Their flight becomes more purposeful and confident over the last weeks. One finds a favorite branch on the hawthorne tree near the road. The other seems to like a perch up high in the backyard, overlooking the feeders.

This single parent hummer family has been a blessing in many ways. We now live in the Anthropocene, a geological era when we humans have become the dominant species influencing climate change and environmental deterioration. Many of us are aware of the grief we feel over the increasing loss of wildlife and wildlands and the deterioration of the anthromes (human-dominated environments such as cities, suburbs, farms and ranches) we live in. Many of us appreciate what E.O. Wilson called biophilia, or our natural affiliation with living things, as we plant the gardens, care for  the house plants and interact with the animals that help sustain our physical and mental health.

This biophilia, our interconnectedness, is multidimensional. On the biological level, for example, the hummers are our genetic cousins; we reportedly share maybe 60% of our DNA on average with birds. On a social level, we humans share many mating and family patterns with hummers and other birds. On a spiritual level, we share with hummers this beautiful planet and the gigantic universe that Earth is traveling through.

When we sit in the back near the feeders, the babies seem less frightened of us than the adults in the neighborhood. They sometimes even fly up to us, hovering a few feet from our faces.

Do they recognize us as their adopted parents? Do they know that we love them, and wish them well? There may be no way to know for sure.

But I would like to think so.

David Derezotes, known as “Dr. Dave” by his students, is a Professor in the College of Social Work and Director of Peace and Conflict Studies in the College of Humanities, University of Utah. He can often be found wandering in the Colorado Plateau backcountry.


This article was originally published on April 2, 2020.