Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mistaken Identities

or Comedy Tonight

For low-brow humor, it's hard to beat well-placed weeds.  Not that weeds are usually knee-slappingly funny all by themselves, but it turns out that they're mighty fine prompts for funny behavior in others—as good as a ladder and a bucket of whitewash to a clown.  When I wrote last month about wanting to see what would happen if I let an unexpected evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) go to seed in the middle of the desert olive tree where it's been growing, my expectations were really pretty feeble.  I mean, I thought that perhaps new seedlings would come up in other unlikely places.  Is that lame or what?  What's actually happened is that the primrose has turned my little garden into a nonstop Vaudeville act that has had me laughing for weeks.

The primrose itself is about six feet tall, growing up through the ten foot desert olive.  Its stems stick out through the tree branches at unlikely angles; on random days they bloom at the tips.  (I've been taking some plants out, so the ground in the photo is embarrassingly bare.)  The upper stems blend into the tree—even those of us who know what we're looking for don't find it easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.  For those like, say, the two families of fledgling lesser goldfinches who hang out in the trees and who haven't yet learned that things are not always as they seem, it's flat-out complicated.

The thing about a tree branch is, it's sturdy.  When you're not entirely sure of your wings to begin with, sturdy is good.  But when you land on what you expect to be a sturdy tree branch and get a flexible primrose stem instead, things can get a little slapstick.  Down bob the stems—whoops!  Frantic flapping.  Up bounce the stems—surprise!  More frantic flapping.  Squawk!  Squawk some more!  Bob, bounce.  Equilibrium returns at last, and then along comes one of your siblings, to land on that nice, sturdy "tree branch" with you.  Bob, bounce, flap, squawk. 

Over the last few days, the goldfinches' balance has improved.  They've learned that the primrose stems have tasty seed pods, and all is well again.  Perhaps half a dozen of them, juveniles and adults, are seated on the stems or in the tree at a time, yellow feathers radiant, looking like fluttery primroses themselves.

Make that scruffy primroses.

But as entertaining as the finches are, they are just the warmup act.  Our star comedian is this young fellow, a black-chinned hummingbird:

Doesn't he look gullible sweet?  He's spent quite a lot of time exploring the garden the last couple of weeks.  After making the rounds, he comes to rest on the lowest branch of the olive by the patio, maybe five feet from where I sit.  He makes himself comfortable:

Lately he's been trying—successfully, so far as I can tell—to impress this little charmer:

A hummingbird needs some serious feeding to support all that activity.  Fortunately our hero is an enthusiastic, undiscriminating eater.  He has been taste-testing every blossom in sight—the 'Wild Thing' autumn sage (at last!), agastache, gaura, dwarf plumbago, 'Blue Twister' allium, arugula, basil, the primroses...  The primroses.  To the hummingbird, the primroses grow on what is apparently a primrose tree.  And there are two other trees just like it in the garden.  He checks them over regularly for flowers.  He doesn't find any.

What he does find is a lot of goldfinches.  Primrose-colored goldfinches.  In the "primrose" trees.  If they are primrose-colored in the primrose trees, they must be primroses, right?  You can practically see the "Q.E.D." flashing through his mind.  He dives in enthusiastically for his dinner.

And lo and behold, his dinner objects.  When I wrote last year about a hummingbird trying to feed off a goldfinch, I thought that was a fluke.  Apparently if you're a goldfinch it's just an occupational hazard.  As the hummingbird—not a quick learner—tries to sip at every single finch, each one swats him away with the kind of bored irritation you or I might use on a housefly.  But some of them are still sitting on those flexible primrose stems, which the swatting sets in motion.  Bob, bounce, flap, squawk.

They've been performing this routine at least once a day.  Sometimes the squawk comes before the flap; otherwise they don't really vary the schtick.  Is it wit?  Is it irony?  Is it subtlety?  Well, no.

But when you want a good laugh, sometimes you just can't beat a pratfall.


  1. Ha! I love this post. And the excellent pictures. You set the stage by providing a little forageable oasis in your desert city... Glad the performers are populating it!

  2. This post made me chuckle. I think your hummingbirds are real stars!

  3. That is VERY funny, Stacy. Thank you! Can you upload a video? I've no idea how to myself (of course) but I should like to see your goldfinch swat a hummingbird very much indeed.

    The hummingbirds, by the way, are adorable. I want one! "I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him..."


  4. The hummingbird must feel disappointed! It is fun to watch wildlife. Hummers are always a source of entertainment. One once thought my bright, multicolored shirt was a flower. It took a few tries before he realized I didn't have any nectar.

  5. Stacy, I really enjoyed the slapstick images in this post. I have American Goldfinches in my garden, and they tend to be clowns, too. I hadn't thought about hummingbirds being not too bright; more than once, I've had one trying to feed at the flowers printed on the front of my t-shirt. -Jean

  6. Very funny! I think they provide entertainment without a tempting weak branch, but that must provide lots of laughs.

  7. Cute story. I bet it is funny to watch the bird antics. I wish the hummingbirds that visit my garden would perch like that. They never sit still. Stacy, great photo of him too.

  8. Your post made me laugh - I could just imagine their surprise when they tried to land, and it only bobbed! Your hummingbird pictures are amazing!

  9. Very funny post. I love the visuals conjured up by your writing.

  10. Thanks, Zoe—it's astonishing how little time it takes for something to become an oasis. Four years ago, the only wildlife here was aphids, black widows, and potato leafhoppers, and their entertainment value is pretty low.

    Janet, I hate to go all cliché, but sometimes the clichés are right—hummingbirds really are magical. So much intensity packed into such a tiny, shimmery frame...

    Dave, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I'll see about uploading a video, but only if I can figure out how to shoot one without making us all seasick. The ones I've tried so far haven't been...appetizing. I'll have to hurry—all the fledglings are beginning to get worldly-wise.

    Hummingbirds are endlessly fun. Even more fun than Looney Tunes, if you can believe it! I will start calling that young male George.

  11. Deb, hummingbirds must live in such a confusing world—all those vivid colors out there, and only some of them flowers.

    Jean, I always think of it as the “hummingbird equation”: bright=flower?=edible! I suppose it's not lack of smarts so much as super-intense focus. They must be able to put two and two together reasonably well—in Vermont they would come tap at my windows if I didn't have the feeders up the day (minute) they arrived in spring. It's amazing how fearless they are, to try to feed off people directly.

    I love the American goldfinches, too—that “Who, me?” call they give always makes me smile.

    Michelle, I am trying to think of other props to offer them next year...

  12. Donna, I've never seen one perch for such a long time before—it's usually just a few seconds, and then they're off again. (Given their high-speed metabolism, a few seconds might be as good as a half hour nap to them...) Maybe the young ones need a little more rest? Dunno. The one I photographed was so close that I could almost have leaned over and touched him.

    Thanks, Holley—the first time they landed on that stem I almost fell out of my own chair laughing, which would have made it a perfect Three Stooges day all the way around.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it, Carolyn—thank you.

  13. Stacy - I planted evening primrose seeds for the first time this year. I chose them because they were labelled as hardy perennials so I thought I could fill a space without having to replant every year. However, after reading your two posts about them, I think I'll grow them in a pot, in an isolated spot.

  14. What great photos - and such a charming story. It never occurred to me that hummingbirds could mistake a bird for a flower! A hummingbird in my garden regularly stops by a camellia (not in bloom) and acts like it's trying to feed. Mysterious.

  15. b-a-g, the primrose itself seems to be very well-behaved. It's everyone else that needs restrained.

    Sheila, don't you wish you could be inside their heads for five minutes, just to know how they see the world? (And maybe to take one little flight...)