Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Great Hummingbird War of Hocking County

We've been housesitting for my inlaws, who have been at their youngest daughter's wedding in Wyoming. During the time I've been here, I've witnessed some extraordinary things.

For example, the hummingbird wars.

My inlaws live out in the country--just on the edge of Wayne National Forest and Hocking Hills. At the back of their two acres, the trees grow fast and thick and the hills rise up to give me a poignant reminder of the foothills of the Smokies a couple of states south in Tennessee. There is a weathered back deck, surrounded by lilies and flowering shrubs, a gigantic willow tree and a plethora of smaller plants--in other words, bee heaven. They also have a pretty good sized hummingbird feeder with a colony of fifteen to twenty hummingbirds who feed at it daily.

Hummingbirds are highly strategic creatures. Ignore the impossible speed of their little wings whirring, forget about the flash of ruby at the breasts of the males and the tiny inquisitiveness of the smaller females.

THE FEEDER BELONGS TO ME seems to be the mantra they all chirp to themselves as they perch upon strategic locations and guard their personal feeder from the rest of the colony. Just now, as I was sitting outside with a cigarette while listening to my daughter's woes on the cell, I watched as a great battle unfolded before me.

To the west: perched upon the wire fence sat a tiny female. She's the one that yells at us if we get too close to the feeder. To the south: a larger male eyed me from his flamboyantly defiant seat on a shrub just below the wire fence. He's closest to the feeder and he knows it. Atop the willow tree to the southeast, a second male yells a challenge. He's been fighting the first male for girls and sugar water since the hummingbirds returned. I can't see him, but I recognize his voice. Full east, another female hides behind the waving leaves of an azalea bush. She insinuates herself into the branches, hoping for a go at the feeder while the others scream insults at each other.

Suddenly, over my head there's the loud buzz of a divebombing hummingbird. She's come over the top of the house and slides into the northern-most feeding station for a quick stolen bite. Immediately the two males dart towards the feeder, but they encounter each other in midair and fly off the the field to continue their private feud. The female on the western side of the fence cries out and attacks the newcomer, wings beating at her foe's head. As the two females chase each other through the yard, the female hidden in the azalea flies in a liesurely fashion to the deck, eyes me with just a hint of friendly curiosity, and slakes her thirst calmly at the feeder. Her enemies remain out of sight, unaware that the victor has already taken the field.

Full, she flits up to the patio table where I sit under a large umbrella. I lift my hand slowly and just for a split-second, I feel the whispered touch of her claws on my outstretched finger. The next thing I know, she's gone--back to her nest made of spiderwebs in the ridge of oak trees a half-mile away--while I watch her flight and smile.

Round one: to the little hummingbird female I call Emily.

Round two: probably in about fifteen minutes.