Ronald Orenstein
(Firefly Books)
As far as I can figure, they are the only birds that will get in your face, peer at you fixedly (as if you were from Mars), maybe flick a tongue at you, and zip away (backwards). Not even the Saints can do that. Fly backwards, I mean. With the exception of St. Joseph of Cupertino.

When he was young, his mother was so put out by his lack of energy and good sense (and his drooply little mouth, half-ajar) that she turned him over to the Capuchin friars in Taranto, "by whom he was accepted in 1620 as a lay brother"

    but was soon dismissed as his continued ecstasies made him unfit for the duties required of him.

Meaning how can you be in charge of cleaning the stables when you are always gooning out in bliss.

St, Joseph could not only levitate, at Mass he frequently hovered in rapture while kneeling in mid-air. Further, he was the only ecstatic who could go from nave backwards to the font without banging into the chandeliers. Which is, perhaps, why he has been named the patron saint of travelers, aviators, and astronauts.

It is certainly why later "he was ordered to remain in his room with a private chapel." The superiors in his Franciscan convent just wanted him to stop making a spectacle of himself. It was a bad business . . . and bad for business. Hummingbirds are like that, may even think themselves to be holy sprits. I mean, can you waft about anywhere you feel like it?

When hummingbirds come to gorge themselves at my feeder, they are also checking out to be sure I am not going to bother any of them while I lie there on my sweaty old air-mattress in the sun, working hard on my melanoma. Thus their hovering act: They are but caretaking all nearby humans.

Hummingbirds are feisty, too. They like ragging on each other, especially anyone trying to poach on their nectar. Males will fly up at each other, up-and-down like a swing, twittering angrily in humbirdese. Seems this noise, according to Hummingbirds, comes not only from their dual voice-boxes, but their feathers that they can rub together, like crickets rubbing their hind-quarters together to lure the lady crickets. There are a few other tricks that hummingbirds have up their little sleeves.

The ruby-throated hummingbird has the ability to fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico every spring, back in the fall, some 800 miles. No nectarine fuel stops along the way. To do this, according to the book, they have to supplement their sucrose intake with fat.

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Their names came from the humming sounds made with their wings (the Indians of Northern California called them the "Uhmunums"), beating, in some cases, more than fifty times a minute. Metabolism is a bit of a survival problem for your common hummingbird. They can inhale/exhale 250 times a minute. During the day their little hearts beat up to 1,250 times a minute, though when they fall in love, these wee parts have been known to vibrate at double that rate, make them go into a tailspin, need counseling.

To conserve power, at night, hummingbirds go into what is called "torpor" like my uncle Herb who heads straight there after his nightly bierfest, where he rests up in front of a reality show and snores. "Uncle Herb," we'll ask, "what are you doing?" "Shut up, you ninnies. Can't you see I'm snoozing?"

There are almost 350 species of hummingbirds around (they reside only in the New World, mostly in South America). Some live on as much as five years, but a branded broad-tail hummingbird was found to have survived twelve years . . . getting gray and irritable in the last years of her little life, complaining repeatedly about the cold, please to shut the front door.

And you'll find that male hummingbirds are a tad sexist, to say the least. After coitus (which can last up to three-fifths of a second), he takes off for the nearest bar while the female of the species devotes herself for two to three weeks to build the nest . . . culling ferns, mosses, and spiderwebs . . . and then lay the bitty eggs. She'll then hatch them, and feed the little ones, but if the male tries to take credit, he is scolded with a series of twitterings which tell him what a drunken lout he is. Baby hummingbirds are fed by regurgitation.

Their wings do a figure 8 when flying: the bird gets 25% of the uplift on the down-cycle, 75% on the up-draft. During courtship, when the males show their stuff, their downflights can reach 10g (of gravitational force) which, for a regular fighter pilot, is enough to make one doze off.

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The rufous hummingbird migrates as far north as the Yukon in the springtime but returns in the fall to the special little Club-Meds on and about the beaches and lake-fronts in Mexico. 160 species of hummingbirds exist in Columbia, as many as 130 in the smaller Ecuador. The most minuscule of the species is the bee hummingbird, weighing in at .06 ounces, no larger than 2½ inches.

The largest hummingbird is the Patagona gigas of Chile, ten times larger than the bee. This "giant" hummingbird is nine inches long, and weighs as much as .8 oz, but, outside of sheer weight, it is a dull-bulb, a true bomb. Its coloration has been described by a leading ornothologist as "boring." Supporters of the giant hummingbird have banded together to taunt these experts, lambasting them with constant twitters and larding them with meager if insulting droppings.

Still, there may be a brighter day for the patagona, because its days as the hummingbird gargantua may soon be over. This change has been brought about through studies of the common ruby-throat. Because of its extensive range, we've learned that it has to store up energy as fat . . . almost doubling its weight. This fact has led to the recent success of Japanese scientists to selectively produce ever-larger hummingbirds. By inbreeding, conjoined with Jack LaLanne-type exercise programs, ornithologists at Kobe University have recently created our first 65-pound hummingbird.

Named Tubby the Terrible for his phenomenal girth (and miserable disposition), this fugitive from the gland gang can, unfortunately, no longer twitter, but merely groan. However, Tub uses his weight to get what he wants. When he spots another male hummingbird trying to pinch his poke, he sits on the sucker until he cries uncle.

Still, this bovine ruby-throat can barely fly, and has trouble moving about at all. It was perhaps in anticipation of this obese creature that Fats Waller composed his famous lyrics for "Your Feets Too Big,"

    Oh your pedal extremities are colossal
    To me you look just like a fossil
    You got me walkin', talkin' and squawkin'
    'Cause your feet's too big, yeah
    Come on and walk that thing
    Oh, I've never heard of such walkin', mercy
    Your, your pedal extremities really are obnoxious
    One never knows, do one?

Hummingbirds is edited by Ronald Orenstein, and weighs in at several pounds. Don't drop it on your tootsies, please. First because it's just too fine to damage, and second if it landed on your "pedal extremities," you would complain. A lot. Shuffle afterwards, too.

The book has over 200 photographs in exceptionally rich detail, of which you can find my favorite on page 57, the Booted Racket tail. This baby has formidable little white booties to set off its spectacular emerald green feathering and long stern-feathers.

The many poetic names of the 350 given to these birds are all listed here, including the flirtatious Frilled coquette, the piously insufferable sunangel . . . along with the only vampire in the cohort, Buffy the helmetcrest. There too is Selasphorus flammula (the Volcano hummingbird with its beady little eyes and permanent snarl), the reclusive Minute hermit, the orthodentically challenged Tooth-billed hummingbird, and the very noisy Calliope.

Finally, there's the Hoary puffleg which struts about with its greying tonsure, a little cane tucked under its wing, endlessly complaining about its neglectful children and grandchildren.

--- L. Lark
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