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What’s That Humming Sound?

September 7, 2009

When I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably notice a humming sound. It might be emanating from my car. The source may be my computer. The sound could come from a home appliance. Humming sounds can be natural occurrences. Whales and dolphins beneath the ocean, many varieties of insects, and even the pulsating of heavenly bodies can produce distinctive hums. Some people hear a constant hum caused by the flow of their own blood in the small vessels of their inner ear.

We might well ask, “What is that humming sound?” This time of year it could be a hummingbird.

The first week of September brought blessed relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of our dog day afternoons. On Monday of last week I enjoyed a delicious summer lunch with a gathering of friends on a screened back porch overlooking a well-tended flower garden. Hummingbirds provided the entertainment for our midday meal. The tiny, feathered creatures put on quite an aerial display as they competed for the sweet nectar of the flowers and the sugar water in a feeder.

At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, Clare and I sat on our own back porch. We were treated to an amazing air show. As we enjoyed our supper, we witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics. Agile flying machines were buzzing our yard, staging mid-air combat maneuvers that would impress even Air Force top guns. September is the prime season for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are always interesting to watch. Their activity increases as the summer days grow shorter. Their excited pace and almost perpetual motion are at once fascinating and wearying to the observer.

From late August through much of September, the tiny hummers become frantic in their feeding habits and combative toward all competitors. Earlier in the spring and summer, two or three hummingbirds might share the same feeder, but in early autumn they become territorial and will attack any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings quarreling over dessert, the petite birds quarrel with each other over which one will have the next turn at their sugar water treat.

The acrobatics preformed by the humming creatures with tiny wings provide a constant air show. Hovering, darting, and diving, in their heightened frenzy, they put on quite a performance. These September days are the most active time for hummingbirds as they prepare for their long migration to Central and South America.

A friend who welcomes hummingbirds to her garden with feeders and flowers wanted to put fresh flowers in an arrangement for a dinner party at her home. She cut several late-blooming red gladioli from her cottage garden. As she did, what she thought was a large buzzing insect began to bother her. The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath the tresses of her new hairdo. The well-mannered lady ran, clutching gladioli tightly in one hand, swatting wildly with the other.

She stopped when the buzzing nuisance confronted her at eye level. It was a hummingbird, clearly annoyed that the lady had cut the flowers from which it had been feeding. The woman held the red gladioli at arm’s length, as if making a peace offering. The hummer moved from one blossom to the next in the handheld bouquet, drinking its fill, before flying off without further conflict.

A hummingbird in flight can be easily mistaken for a large stinging insect. The hummingbird’s tiny wings move so rapidly they make a buzzing sound. This flight pattern, filmed in slow motion, reveals their remarkable ability to speed forward, to hover, and to reverse directions.

Hummingbirds are attracted to a variety of blooms. Fiery red salvias, cup-shaped hibiscus, and even the common trumpet vine provide nourishment to these tiny creatures who are constantly in search of a meal. Their frenetic activity demands a continual supply of sugary food. They sip nectar and can be enticed into view with feeders filled with fresh sugar water. A mixture of one part sugar and four parts of water meets the dietary requirements of these small birds. It is best for the health of hummers if we do not add red food coloring.

Accounts of close encounters between human and hummers abound. The tiny birds are frequently trapped in garages and on screened porches, usually drawn into these unfriendly confines by something bright red in color. A red toolbox or a red fire extinguisher can lure a hummingbird into an open garage. One was even seen attempting to extract nectar from a red plastic bicycle horn.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by an artificial flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom in a nursing facility. The patients all suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the patients were in the final stage of the illness, sometimes known as the living death. The nursing staff was unaware of the hummingbird’s presence until they noticed something they rarely saw. Several of the patients were smiling, some for the first time in months. With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the tiny bird and release it outdoors. The bird flew away but not before bestowing a gentle blessing on a room full of people who needed tender mercy.

If you pay attention, you may hear a humming sound.

It may be a hummingbird bringing a special blessing just for you.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 7, 2009

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