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XIII

THE HUMMINGBIRD


RUBY-THROATED HUMMING BIRD
1,2. Males   3. Female    4. Young

HUMMINGBIRDS are found only in America and on the islands near it. They are of many kinds, but only one kind is ever seen in the eastern United States. This is known as the ruby-throated hummingbird, because of a splendid red throat-patch worn by the male. To speak more exactly, the patch is red only in some lights. You see it one instant as black as a coal, and the next instant it flashes like a coal on fire. This ornament, — a real jewel, — with the lovely shining green of the bird’s back, makes him an object of great beauty.

Every one knows him, or would do so only that some people confuse him with bright-colored, long-tongued hummingbird moths that are seen hovering, mostly in the early evening, over the flowers of the garden.

The ruby-throat spends the winter south of the United States. He arrives in Florida in March, but does not reach New England till near the middle of May.

Many persons seem to imagine that the hummer lives on the wing. They have never seen one sitting still, they say. But the truth is that hummingbirds pass but a small part of the time in the air. They are so very small, however, that they are easily overlooked on a branch of a tree, and the average person never notices them except when the hum of their wings attracts his attention.

One of the prettiest sights in the world is a hummingbird hovering before a blossom, his wings vibrating so fast as to make a mist about him, and his long needle of a bill probing the flower with quick, eager thrusts. All his move ments are of lightning-like rapidity, and even while your eyes are on him he is gone like a flash, you cannot say whither.

The hummingbird’s nest is built on a branch of a tree, — saddled on it, — and is not very hard to find after you have once seen one, and so have learned precisely what to look for. Generally it is placed well out toward the end of the limb. I have found it on pitch-pines in the woods, on roadside maples, — shade trees, — and especially in apple and pear orchards. The mother bird is very apt to betray its whereabouts by buzzing about the head of any one who comes near it.

Last May, for example, I stopped in the middle of the road to listen for the voice of a house wren, when I caught instead the buzz and squeak of a hummer. Turning my gaze upward, I saw her fly to a half-built nest on a maple branch directly over my head.

The nest is a tiny thing, looking for size and shape like a cup out of a child’s toy tea-set. Its walls are thick, and on the outside are covered — shingled, we may say — with bits of gray lichen, which help to make the nest look like nothing more than a knot. Whether they are put on for that purpose, or by way of ornament, is more than I can tell.

The bird always lays two white eggs, about as large as peas. The young ones stay in the nest for three weeks, more or less, till they are fully grown and fledged, and perfectly well able to fly. I once saw one take his first flight, and a great venture it seemed. All these three weeks, and for another week afterward, the mother — no father is present — has her hands full to supply the little things with food, which she gives them from her crop, thrusting her long, sharp bill clean down their throats in the process, in a way to make a looker-on shiver. The only note I have ever heard from the ruby throat is a squeak, which seems to be an expression of nervousness or annoyance, and is uttered whenever an intruder — a man, a cat, or a strange bird — comes near the tree in which her treasures are hidden.

Hummingbirds sometimes fly into open windows and are caught. At such times they be come tame almost at once, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep them alive in captivity, and it is cruel to attempt it, except when the little creature is injured and plainly unable to look out for itself.

A lady of my acquaintance discovered a hummingbird under her piazza. It had flown in by accident, probably, and now was darting to and fro in a frantic attempt to get out. The piazza was open on three sides, to be sure, but the frightened bird kept up against the ceiling, and of course found itself walled in.

Fearful that it would injure itself, the lady brought a broom and tried to force it to come down and so discover its way out; but it was only the more scared. Then a happy thought came to her. She went to the garden, plucked a few flowers, and going back to the piazza, set them down for the bird to see. Instantly it flew toward them, and as it did so it saw the open world without, and away it went.

Another lady wrote me once a very pretty story of a hummer that came and probed a nasturtium which she held in her hand.

It is wonderful to think that so tiny a bird, born in New England or in Canada in June, should travel to Cuba or Central America in the autumn, and the next spring find its way back again to its birthplace.


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