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THE HUMMINGBIRD AT HOME
E dropped into our garden like the flying fleck from
a rainbow, probed at the geranium blossoms and disappeared as the flash from a whirling mirror. I had often watched him and listened to the musical hum of his wings, as it rose and fell in sweetest cadences. I always had the unsatisfied tinge of disappointment as I was left gazing at the trail of this little shooting star of our garden, that hummed as well as glowed. I longed to have him and call him mine. Not caged, mercy no! I wanted his lichen-shingled home in the Virginia creeper, his two pearly eggs, the horned midgets, the little fledglings, the mother as she plied them with food, and I wanted the glint of real live sunshine that hovered and poised about the flowers and got away, a minute ethereal sprite. And more than that, I wanted to have forever with me this mite that possesses the tiniest soul in feathers.
It was not till we had studied, had watched and waited with the camera for four different nesting seasons about the hillside and along the creek, that we succeeded in getting a series of pictures of the home life of the little Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)1.
The first year, by the merest chance, we found a nest
1 For a description of the more important species in each family the reader is referred to the end of the chapter.
that had been placed in a wild blackberry brier just above the creek. The green fibres and the lichens that shingled the outside of the tiny cup blended exactly with the green leaves and stems of the vines. The cotton lining of the nest and the two eggs looked precisely like the clusters of white blossoms surrounding. One might have searched all over the vine a dozen times and yet not have discovered the nest.
Many a spider's suspension-bridge the hummingbird had torn away, and many a mouthful of cotton from the balms and down from the thistles, she collected. As I watched her, it looked to me as if a bill for probing flowers was not suitable for weaving nests. Maybe it would have been more convenient at times if it had been shorter. But she wove in the webs and fibres. She whirred round and round and shaped the side of her cup as a potter moulds his masterpiece. Then she thatched the outside with irregular bits of lichen.
Another pair of hummers took up a homestead on the hillside. The bank had been cut down to build a wood road, but the place had been abandoned a generation ago. The hummer saddled her tiny cup on the lowest branch of a small fir at the top of the bank. It looked as if she had picked out a spot to please the photographer.
When the weather was warm, the mother didn't brood long at a time. It often looked to me as if it was only child's play at setting. Five minutes was such a long, wearisome spell that she just had to take a turn about the garden. I often thought the tiny eggs would chill through before she returned, and I began to lose hope in her restless, shiftless manner. But she knew better.
At first the little capsules had such a wonderfully delicate flesh-tint of pink. Then, one morning, I stood over the nest like Thomas of old. Some one had replaced the eggs with two black bugs! It might have been a miracle. There was a tiny knob on the end of each bug that looked as if it might be the beginning of a bill. Each little creature resembled a black bean more than a bird, for each possessed a light streak of brown along the middle of the back. They couldn't be beans, for they were pulsing with life in a lumpy sort of way. I went frequently to look at them. In a few days the nestlings began to fork out all over with tiny black horns, until they would have looked like prickly pears had they been the right color. At the next stage each tiny horn began to blossom out into a spray of brown down, the yellow at one end grew into a bill, the black skin cracked a trifle and showed two eyes. It was hard to see just how those black bugs could turn to birds, but day after day the miracle worked till I really saw two young hummingbirds.
When they left the nest, the midgets took up their abode in our back yard. The yard was crossed by three clothes-lines for perches, and the large apple tree in the corner gave abundant shade for the hottest days. In the centre was a round bed of geraniums, and along the fence were gladioli and nasturtiums. The youngsters simply sucked all the honey out of every flower in the yard. Every morning I saw them going the rounds and collecting tribute from the hearts of the new blossoms. As I came and went about the house, they soon became accustomed to the presence of a person, and when I filled some flowers with sweet water, it did not take them long to