The Cracker Barrel: Life on the edge

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Hummingbirds are interesting creatures.

They’re the only bird species capable of hovering and flying backward. By tilting the plane of their wings backward slightly, they can move up and back. By tilting them downward, they can zoom forward, getting power and lift both from their downstroke and upstroke.

Their wings move so fast they make an audible whir or hum, whence comes their name. As anyone blessed with a glimpse of male rubythroats in bright sunlight knows, their shimmering red throat patch is gorgeous. Unique laminated structures on the feathers of the patch scatter light waves, causing the iridescent effect.

John James Audubon likened the hummer to a “glittering fragment of the rainbow.” And children of all ages are instinctively fascinated by the aerial antics of this manic blur of energy.

Hummingbirds live life on the edge. To support a heart that beats some 1,200 times a minute, they need to refuel every 10 minutes. In her book “Northwoods Wildlife,” author Janine Benyus writes: “The energy output for a hummer is ten times that of a person running nine miles an hour. If a 170-pound man led the life of a hummingbird, he’d burn over 150,000 calories a day and evaporate some 100 pounds of perspiration per hour. If he ran out of water, his skin temperature would reach the melting point of lead, and he would eventually ignite.”


By any measure, these tiny summer residents of our northland stand out from the general crowd. But their uncommonness extends toward the dark side as well as the light.

As readers who feed sugar water to hummers know, the little critters are very prone to what might be called feeder rage. Like their hot-headed human counterparts hunched over steering wheels, feeding hummers take instant offense at the slightest encroachment upon their “rights.”

The feeder that used to hang from the eave of our screen porch (before falling prey to a yearling black bear) sported three outlets at which hummingbirds could sip. But over entire summers, we only rarely witnessed two birds happily sipping at the same time. Instead we watched hundreds of times as a feeding hummer got driven off by a newcomer, or angrily quit feeding to attack the incoming intruder.

Some naturalists claim these arguments are gender-based and occur only between males and females. Like old married couples crabbily disagreeing about most everything, the warring hummers spend more time attacking each other than they do taking nourishment. And like human arguments, these disputations are often accompanied by chittering outcries.

Whatever the reason for their quarrels, watching them zip about in ill-humored contention grows wearisome, like listening to the claims and counterclaims of warring political factions. Little is gained by such persistent ill will, and the misexpenditure of energy finally irked us to the point of choosing not to replace the feeder.

Instead we find ourselves satisfied to watch as the little creatures hover in the air extracting sweet libations from the many flowers that surround our house, and we take their presence in our lives as a blessing and a treat.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at


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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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