They’re gone now, the families of ruby-throated hummingbirds who spent the summer with us. The males, with their natty bright red waistcoats, flew south at the beginning of September, leaving behind the females and young. I was puzzled, at first, to see no young males among the crowd that continued to zip from flower to flower in the sun garden and dive bomb our feeders. But it turns out that the young males “masquerade” as females until their first winter in the tropics where they start to don their distinctive red plumage. It’s amazing to think that these birds — 3” high, weighing in at around 11 ounces — are en route to Central America, many flying 28 hours straight across the Gulf of Mexico. Amazing, too, to know that these same families will return next year, again across continents and seas, to the very hemlocks above the little white farmhouse in the Berkshires where they fledged. It’s their birth place and summer home and, some time toward the end of next April, we’ll hear a whir of wings overhead and know they’re back. Few things in life, it seems to me, are as predictable and heartwarming.
These lovely photos were taken by my brother Anders right after the males departed.
And here’s a poem by the American poet and critic Robin Becker which, I think, perfectly captures the bird’s almost otherworldly beauty.
I love the whir of the creature come
to visit the pink
flowers in the hanging basket as she does
most August mornings, hours away
from starvation to store
enough energy to survive overnight.
The Aztecs saw the refraction
of incident light on wings
as resurrection of fallen warriors.
In autumn, when daylight decreases
they double their body weight to survive
the flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
On next-to-nothing my mother
flew for 85 years; after her death
she hovered, a bird of bones and air.