Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 29, 2020

Rogers column: Hummingbirds a bit of normalcy in unusual times

We’ve been awaiting the seasonal visitors, eager for reminders that some order still exists in this otherwise disorderly world. The first arrived the other evening, May 16, at 7:22 p.m. CDT, to be specific:

A hummingbird.

More precise information than that I can’t provide. The way our feeder and porch chairs are situated, the bird basically presented in silhouette. Besides, I’m not much good with colors under the best of circumstances.

Let’s assume it was the ruby-throated variety, since that’s the one that breeds in these parts. And, what the heck, male. I’ll try to be more observant on future occasions. Maybe get out the binoculars. Or just ask Kayne what she sees.

We’re enthusiastic but relative newbies to hummingbird viewing. There’s something about their ability to hover and flit about that’s fascinating. Plus, they’re so cute – one of nature’s tiny, precious wonders.

They call to mind Tinkerbell, only with feathers.

I’ve read that they aren’t very good at walking; their legs and feet serve basically for perching. And they need to do a lot of perching, because flight is such a calorie-depleting activity.

I’ve also read that they weigh about the same as a nickel, flap their wings on average 53 times a second and, relatively speaking, have the largest bird brains. Proportionally, twice the size of ours.

A group of them is known variously as a bouquet, a charm, a hover, a glittering, a tune or, my favorite, a shimmer.

We want to be good hosts, so we’re no longer using the red-dyed nectar mix from the grocery store, choosing instead to make a simple four-to-one water/sugar solution. We’ve added a second feeder, and might put another outside the back porch in case some are too shy to be seen out front.

The other visitors we’re still waiting for are longtime favorites and don’t require any particular preparations. They’ll show up when they’re good and ready and make do for themselves once they get here: Cicadas and fireflies.

Or lightning bugs, as I knew fireflies in my youth. I went years without seeing any. Word is their numbers are dwindling, victims of habitat loss, pesticides and light pollution. We humans are not very considerate of our fellow residents of this planet.

But they’re either making something of a comeback, or I’ve just been more attentive. They hung out in respectable levels at our home in New York. We learned last summer that some still call Nashville home, too.

The fireflies are already here, of course, they just haven’t yet progressed to bug status. They’re hiding out in larva form. Likewise for the cicadas, which are underground waiting for the right temperature conditions to emerge.

We’re not due one of those periodic massive invasions, thank goodness. I remember too well the 13-year variety in 1998, when the hundreds – thousands? – of creatures emerging from my lawn looked like a 1950s sci-fi movie playing out in miniature.

I’d just as soon not see cicadas at all, for that matter. They are among the least attractive creatures of the insect world, like house flies on steroids.

All I want them to do is crank up that familiar soundtrack that I associate with warm, languorous evenings sitting outside while darkness slowly takes over.

A group of cicadas, by the way, is known as a colony. Fireflies are called a light posse, or a sparkle.

As I said, all three types of visitors, the two old favorites and the newly appreciated one, are particularly welcome this year. The world seems to be operating under a strange new set of rules, with little in life adhering to the old ones. It’s all unsettling in ways both large and small.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, the reporter Sarah Lyall adapted from Shakespeare in describing the coming season as “the summer of our discontent.”

“We can’t go far,” she wrote. “Our worlds feel muffled, sad, small, lonely, scary, boring. We’re caring for older relatives, looking after young children, stranded in the city, yearning for places we can’t visit and people we can’t see.”

She prescribed reading books as a palliative, and I wouldn’t argue with that.

But amid all social disruption around the world it’s comforting to know that some things can still be counted on. Mother Nature’s cast of so-called lesser creatures – including cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, crickets, tree frogs and others – face their own existential threats, mostly at the hands of humans. But they’re still following their primordial, biological directives: looking for food, signaling for mates, propagating the species.

In the process, they’re putting on a visual show, accompanied by a symphony. And admission is free.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.