A hummingbird hovering at a hummingbird feeder drinking sugar water.
We might wish that they dance for us, but these agile, aerial beauties have a hunger driven by a celestial timetable; image by DALL-E, based on a prompt by Jason Velázquez.

UNLOCKED: a hummingbird and yearning for reprieve

September 26, 2023

The asters are beginning to make their appearance along the roadsides. I’ll spare you my ruminations on these deceptively dainty harbingers of annual ruination that thrive in disturbed soils, except to say that their appearance is a tap on the shoulder reminder that some of my favorite tenants have likely vacated their lodgings. Without even saying goodbye. I open the fridge and see that I still have half a quart of sugar water solution left in the Mason jar labeled, “HUMMINGBIRD JUICE.”

Every year it seems the departure of the flittiest member of Aves leaves me lonelier earlier and earlier. These creatures have no consideration. My very grasp of my carefully carved sense of self rests on the hope that my adoration is at least acknowledged, if not returned. Their attentions can be so…mercenary.

I know that’s not true of all of them, of course. And who am I to blame them? Their time here in the sun is short. They have their requirements. A safe branch on which to perch if and when their wings ever stop quavering. A canopy to shield their little ones. And the steady flow of that nectar they cannot do without, even for a day. I was late getting the feeders out this year, and so was surprised to find that one or two birds returned to share my address, despite my delinquency. I have done nothing to tame the strip of floral wilderness against the backyard side of the house, so it seems the blooms present were enough to sustain a small coterie of last year’s guests in the early, lean days of the season. Perhaps they, themselves, arrived late and found more generous territories already occupied. Maybe they’ve just gone through the aestival competition with their peers too many times and have decided that it’s okay to settle, my shortcomings overlooked.

Even so, they can be demanding. Washing dishes on a morning in early June, the faintest tapping on the kitchen sink window caused me to look up. She was in a huff, drawing indignant Zs in the air and fixing me with a tiny, baleful glare. I was to have hung the hummingbird feeder outside the window by now. It was to have been there when she arrived, just as one should always have bottle of wine ready for a visitor who has endured delays, unscheduled layovers, luggage hassles, and screaming babies on her journey via commercial air travel across the country.

To make them ask for the sugar is neglectful. No, more than that, it’s callous. There’s an unspoken compact to be honored. That dance of color, that aerial masterpiece of precision, that flirty little flyby right up next to the window I’ve alway interpreted as affirmation of my offering (to expect gratitude would debauch the relationship) — all these gifts could be bestowed on the attention of any dishwasher gazing out into the yard. But this tiny feathered angel chose me. Why I’ll never know, but a lack of demonstrable appreciation could result in an empty window frame one day.

I don’t mention to her the things I’ve done, or not done, for her to try to make her visits comfortable. That would be in poor taste. But still…the swamp maple cluster simply must come down soon. These weed-trees fall down on their own anyway, and while five of the trunks, all eighty feet tall or better, would crash in an easterly or westerly direction, two of them are leaning south and precariously so. I said four years ago that they were a menace and imposters of legitimate trees besides. The deed keeps being unavoidably deferred each Winter. How shall I explain to my little bird that her coziness and protection might come at the expense of the very kitchen window that serves as the theatre of our assignations? I know that I have to drop the whole cluster as soon as possible. I just can’t bear to think of the pained, betrayed look in her eyes when she returns next year to find her usual lodgings destroyed.

I don’t know if that will be the injury that she finds too villainous to forgive. Perhaps I can put out the solution earlier. I can even try to mix her cocktail with a superior brand of sugar. I confess, this year finances have been tight, and it’s been the store brand (not made from cane, but from beets, oh the scandal!) for everybody. But what am I to tell her? “I’m sorry, love…I can keep feeding you, but you’ll have to find another tree to make your nest.” I can almost imagine her playful hover settling into a stationary position at eye level in front of me, as stiff as one can hold oneself while still fluttering to remain aloft, with an expression and posture that conveys, icily, “I understand.”

And then my living prism; my backyard ballerina of the air; my silly, territorial, dependable, jealous, argumentative, even surly Summer caller will gather up her dignity and zip away into the treetops where I can’t see her tears. I’ll tell myself that it had to be done — those trees had to come down. But I’ll know the truth. I probably could have waited another year, maybe two. I’ll cut them down to save face in the event of a tempest more furious than the beat of my heart or her wings. I’ll cut them down out of fear that she’ll be living up there in the canopy of those swamp maples, racing back and forth all day to feed her chicks, when a Summer storm smashes them down in a gust just a degree stronger against which the soft, insubstantial trunks could brace themselves. I imagine her zipping to the window, frantic, imploring me to do something. And I’d be helpless to provide any rescue or even respite. Worse than that, selfishly, is that she’d witness the fact of my impotence when she needed me most. And while she’d say later that she knows there was nothing I could do, no man can be blamed for Nature’s wrath, I’d know she’d never look at me the same way. She’d never dance at the feeder again, showing off every combination of her colors in the sunlight with a careless flutter followed by a spiral pirouette.

If she came back to the feeder at all, it would be solely for the calories. Any graceful shimmering I happened to observe would be purely incidental. Transactional. She’ll make her home in someone else’s backyard, whether he as a feeder or not. She’ll think “At least this new one doesn’t take me for granted. He isn’t so arrogant yet that he thinks my devotion can be had for an annual trickle of weak treacle.”

I won’t try to explain myself. What would be the use? And I won’t ask her which back yard she’s made her home in. At least I’ll try not to ask that, but I know at some point I’ll think I’ve come up with a cleverly worded inquiry that I think doesn’t sound like I’m still obsessed with her. She’ll see right through me, of course. She’s likely to tell me that I have incredible gall to think I have any right to ask such a question.

But she might answer in a way that provides a clue. If she comes right out and says, “Oh, I’ve found a lovely weeping willow three doors up the street that’s just perfect for this year’s nest,” then I’ll know that sonofabitch Marty enticed her away with a fancy glass feeder, probably filled with organic sugar and artificial color. If her answer is vague, it probably means she could only manage to establish residence somewhere like that thicket of a garden forsaken by Mrs. McCorvey, the widow living in the house set back from the road that looks like it’s just about ready to come crashing down with or without the help of hooligan swamp maples. There was a time my fae bird could have commanded any backyard in the neighborhood. Her colors were so bright and her dance synced to the oscillation of the Universe itself. And I guess that’s what makes my scheduled treachery so unpardonable. She was counting on me, a foolish old man, to take care of her, as she transitioned from delicate sugar sprite of the trees to reigning grande dame of tea time at the feeder.

I know she’ll land on her feet on a perfectly acceptable perch nearby. She’s still got that iridescent glow and some pretty fancy moves for a bird of any age. But I’m the one who put her out, who’s going to force her to have to hustle come the end of May when ALL the girls are competing for space in the suburban canopy. And I have no business, I admit it, even wondering where she ends up, let alone forgiving me.

When I think about it, I find it peculiar that I’ve never asked her where she goes in Winter. Never even ventured to hint at that curiosity. Never even googled where Hummingbirds from the Berkshires disappear to for six months out of the year. I guess that’s always been part of our unwritten contract, too. I accept that she’s got to do what she’s got to do to survive. I guess I’ve always näively conjured up an image of some kindly old lady in South Carolina or somewhere with a porch cluttered with feeders, dozens of hummingbirds whirling and criticizing each other in shrill little imprecations. I try not to think too much about whose window she’s dancing in come December, to be honest. And, to her credit, she’s never asked about the sunflower seed shells or millet sprouts that cover the ground under the window when she blitzes in on a warm breeze. Not once.

So, I’ll refill the feeder one more time. I haven’t seen her in a couple days, but maybe she’s around, making preparations for her sojourn. She’s never been good with partings, and, to be truthful, I’m not either. I sense also, that she senses a heaviness, even more so than that which accompanies our usual farewells. If nothing else, the Hummingbirds passing through from points farther north will find a much needed pit stop in my back yard as they make their way to their own Winter homes. I’m tempted to ask one of them to tell my bird to get here as soon as she can next year. I don’t. I know that if I pass along the reason why, it’s just going to stress her out for months, thinking about how the housing crunch in the Berkshires just got that much worse for her. If I don’t say why, she might think I’ve got a wonderful surprise for her, and she’ll spend weeks imagining scenarios based on my thoughtfulness and generosity, perhaps even making the intemperate choice to start her northward trek with frost still on the cattails.

I see out this cursed kitchen window that the leaves are falling already, and despite some crazy 90º+ days last week, I know Autumn’s brush will paint my world in the somber, subdued hues that are so indelicate with my emotions. The bee balm has dried up, leaving a huge gap in natural sources of nectar. I am, of course grateful for the asters, who serve as Nature’s last mercy for so many of us. As I stand at the kitchen window, hoping to catch one more glance of my hummingbird, one more blur of green or flash of a blue tail, I feel the focus of my gaze drawn upwards where the jury of swamp maples glare down at me in condemnation for the faithless act I have yet to commit.

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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