Friday, June 25, 2010

We Have Nothing to Fear Except Well-Meaning Incompetence


I Came, I Saw, I Flapped About

They make hummingbirds feisty around in here in ways I don't remember Vermont's ruby-throated hummingbirds being. Our black-chinned hummers are highly territorial and will spend more energy driving competitors off from a food source than they could ever gain from eating it (or so it seems).

That's especially true at feeders. A feeder may have six--count 'em, six--perches, but only one hummingbird at a time ever gets to use them (with the possible exception of mates and just-fledged siblings). That's why I don't put out feeders. To have a bunch of angrily meeping birds zipping past at warp speed before I've had my coffee--no. Whether you find all that action entertaining or irritating, peaceful it isn't. That said, hummingbirds are generally better behaved where natural sources of nectar are concerned, and those I provide with pleasure.

Cut back to my first year in this house. I planted tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), an annual that I thought would nicely fill in one of my new perennial beds. Only one seedling survived, but that was plenty. It became a monster of a plant--eight feet high and at least five around. I had grown tithonia in Vermont, where it, too, had been better behaved (Query: Is there a pattern here?), but even though the New Mexican version rather took over the bed, that sunflower was glorious in bloom--157 cubic feet of greenery covered in two-inch, bright orange daisies.

Bumblebees and butterflies loved it; to my surprise, so did the hummingbirds, which would sip from the trumpets on the disc flowers. But they're territorial birds (have I mentioned that they're territorial birds?), and apparently, they're perfectly willing to turn that protectiveness against other species. One day a black swallowtail butterfly was calmly--quietly, peacefully-- feeding at one of the tithonia's several dozen flowers. (Just to be clear, on 157 cubic feet of plant. A large plant. With dozens of flowers. Room for all and sundry.) A hummingbird zoomed up and tried to chase it off, and an aerial battle ensued...

which the butterfly won.

The butterfly won! An insect that can't fly in a straight line to save its life and that has no offensive capabilities, vs. a 60-mile per hour bundle of irritation with a bill that could rip a butterfly's wings to shreds. Admittedly, the butterfly was bigger than the hummingbird and for all I know may well have weighed more. But still...

Cut back several years earlier, to a regular bird feeder I had in Vermont, a basic platform affair with an angled roof. The mourning doves had quite a time figuring out how to negotiate around the roof to get to the food, and I watched many of them fall off the feeder altogether (cheap entertainment at its best). Eventually they became more expert, but they never landed without a lot of fuss and bother. One day I was watching a blue jay at the feeder--blue jays being large, aggressive birds, right?--when along came a mourning dove, back-winging like mad in its effort to land. The blue jay jabbed at it a few times to no effect and ended up with a faceful of flapping feathers in return. It very quickly just gave up and left.

The moral of these stories: Never underestimate the power of a lot of uncertain flapping about. (Try saying that in your best James Earl Jones voice.)

The alternate but related moral: Incompetence wins over aggression every time. (It's the combination that you really have to watch out for.)

And do take your history books with a grain of salt. They're all about people being "competent."

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