Here to return to
A NEW ACQUAINTANCE
A STUDENT of nature, differing from some less fortunate folk that one meets at wintering places, is never at a loss what to do with his day. In a strange land, at least (the stranger the better), he possesses one of the prime requisites of a contented life: he knows every night what is on his docket for the morrow. His days, so to express it, are all dovetailed together. Tuesday’s work is to finish Monday’s; Wednesday’s is to finish Tuesday’s; and so the weeks run by. What could be simpler, or more conducive to cheerfulness? A day should have a motive, as well as a piece of music or a poem.
I am still at Tucson. Two mornings ago there was but one thing for me to do. I knew it before I rose. I must take the half-past seven horse-car, ride down town as far as Simpson Street, walk thence across the Santa Cruz Valley to the base of Tucson Mountain, and from there follow the narrow road that winds between the foot of the cliffs and the old canal, till I came to a certain bush. The name of this bush I cannot give, not knowing it, but it bears millions of small, fleshy leaves, and, what is more to the present purpose, is covered with thousands, if not millions, of small purple flowers.
I had noticed it for the first time the forenoon before; and I noticed it then because, as I passed, I heard to my great surprise and intense gratification the buzz of a hummingbird’s wings. I was not in the least expecting to see any bird of that sort during my brief winter’s stay in Arizona; and which is better, ornithologically speaking, to find the long expected or the unexpected, is a point that wiser heads than mine may settle. For myself, either happening will do, so it be not too infrequent.
My eyes turned of themselves in the right direction, and there at my elbow was the tiny, emerald-backed, familiar-looking beauty, hovering before the blossoms of this spreading bush. It was only for a second or two. Then for another such period he perched on the slender tip of the nearest mesquite, and then was away on the wings of the wind. I waited for his return, but not long enough, and came back to the city, wondering.
His upper parts, as I say, were green, and he looked at a first glance much like our common ruby-throat of the East. But in the few seconds that my eye followed him — a time too short for catching myself up and making sure even of the little I had seen — I received an impression (it was nothing more) of a black head as well as of a black throat. If the impression was correct, the bird could not be a ruby-throat, and besides, unless my memory was at fault, the ruby-throat was not to be looked for in this longitude. I must see the handbook.
A reference to that authority showed that eight species of hummingbirds had been reported from the Catalina Mountains, but not the ruby-throat. Of the two or three common ones among the eight, the most likely candidate seemed to be the black-chinned, Trochilus alexandri, though that bird’s crown is not black. Probably my impression upon that point had been erroneous; so surprised and hurried as I had been, a measure of inexactness was rather to be looked for. At all events, it was impossible to make out how the bird could be any one of the other seven. By the rule of exclusion — a pretty safe rule, I told myself — he ought to be a black-chin.
So the matter rested, not much to my satisfaction, till the next morning. Then, as I have already said, I went immediately after breakfast to stand beside that blossoming bush until the bird should again show himself. If my confidence that he would be there, in that precise spot, no different from thousands of others in all those miles and miles of country, all so exactly alike, beside that particular bush, itself like thousands of others, — if my confidence seems presumptuous, as to many readers I dare say it will, I can only profess that it was based upon no small acquaintance with the ruby-throat’s habit of frequenting day after day the same tree, and even the same twig, as a resting-place, or post of observation. It was not at all unlikely, I reasoned, that the black-chin’s habit would prove to be similar. At any rate, there was no harm in proceeding upon that hypothesis.
I went at once to the place, therefore, took a favorable position with the sun at my back, focused my eight-power glass to a nicety upon the topmost twig of the mesquite bush (quarter seconds might be precious), and waited. As the capable reader has already divined, the bird did not fail me, nor keep me long in suspense. There was a sound of wings, and in another instant the hummer stood on the top spray of the mesquite. And his crown was black, like his throat. He could not be alexandri. But before I had time to take in the full awkwardness of my dilemma — since I had already ruled the other seven species out of the account — the bird turned his head to one side, the sun struck him at the right angle, and behold, his gorget had long, flaring wings, like the loose ends of a broad necktie, or, to use the homely comparison which occurred to me at the moment, like a pair of big mutton-chop whiskers, and was no longer black, but of a most exquisite and brilliant shade of violet. The radiant vision shone upon me for an instant; then, at another movement of the head, all was black again, and in another instant the bird was gone.
Now, then, I began to see daylight. The bird, having a ruff, was not of the genus Trochilus, and the question was so far simplified, though it would be necessary to consult the book again before it could be settled. Meanwhile, I must by all means have another look at the beauty. Such splendor of color was worth waiting for, though it came only in flashes. And I waited. But though the creature finally returned to the mesquite he persisted in sitting with his back to the sun, and I came away without seeing him again transfigured.
Another preference to the handbook, and I knew him for Calypte costæ, the Costa hummingbird. But now mark how one day’s work is linked with another’s. The book informed me that the crown, as well as the gorget and the ruff, was “brilliantly burnished amethyst violet.” I had not seen that, doubtless because the light had not fallen upon the crown at the necessary angle. The detail must nevertheless be verified. Here, then, was my business for to-morrow.
I was late in arriving, — a full hour, at least, behind my appointment, — having walked the whole distance this time, and by a roundabout course; and the hummer was waiting for me. “You are late,” I fancied him saying; but of course that was my “pathetic fallacy.” In the course of my stay he “gave me three sittings,” as my penciled memorandum puts it, and I saw that his forehead and a spot behind the ear were of the same dazzling, indescribably beautiful color as the gorget and ruff. The whole crown I did not see illuminated, but the forehead sufficed.
At one time a ruby-crowned kinglet came and played about in the same bush, and in that comparison he seemed almost a giant. “The hummer is smaller and smaller,” my pencil remarked, “every time I see him.” I might have addressed him as Charles Lamb addressed the shade of Elliston, when he saw that worthy, all his stage trappings removed, seated in Charon’s boat, — “Bless me, how little you look.”
The identification was now complete. I had doubled my list of hummingbirds, having seen but one species in all my previous years, and the next morning I might reasonably have turned my steps elsewhere. But when the hour came round I could think of nothing else I wanted so much to do as to see that hummer again. And I followed my inclination. It was well I did.
We were both prompt. As I drew near I saw the tiny creature perched as usual at the tip of the mesquite. How many times he came and went during the hour that I stayed by him I fail to remember; but on the second or third occasion a verdin happened into the neighborhood. The hummer descended upon him hotly, drove him away in no time, and then, as if in celebration of his triumph, mounted straight into the air till he was like a dot, and came down again almost vertically to his perch. It was a brilliant and lovely display, an ebullition of vital spirits well worth a forenoon of any man’s life to witness. There are city parades, hours in length, with martial music and all manner of bright regalia, that might better be skipped. And a few minutes later, the enemy having returned, the entire performance was repeated, ecstatic flight, vertical drop and all. The verdin’s presence, it appeared, was extremely annoying to the hummer. This place was his. Trespassing was forbidden, and the verdin ought to know it.
Once, watching for another flash of color, I had my glass on the hummer as he sat quiet.
Suddenly the verdin began sputtering to himself, after his manner, a little way off. Quick as thought the hummer cocked his head, waited an instant as if to make sure he had heard correctly (it seemed impossible, I suppose, after such a drubbing), and then, like a bullet out of a gun, flew at the persistent intruder. His spirit was wonderful, and being roused to his work, he finished by descending at full speed upon a black phoebe that just then blundered innocently along. The big flycatcher, many times bigger than the hummer, — but so is a man many times bigger than a rifle ball, — did not stand upon the order of his going, but went at once. I did not wonder. The fellow might have driven me away, also, had he taken it into his head to try. He was irresistible. Talk of a strenuous life!
At another time he darted from his perch in a quite unwonted direction, and flew on the line to a palo-verde shrub off on the hillside. The verdin was there, it turned out, down at the very bottom of the bush, — though to my senses he had made no sign, — and must be dislodged forthwith.
Why the hummer offered no objection to the kinglet’s presence is beyond my knowledge. Perhaps he took into account the fact that the kinglet was here only for the winter; for it was impossible not to surmise that the hummer had selected this particular spot for his summer home, and as such meant to hold it against all comers, exercising over it all the rights of sovereignty. Let the verdin and the phoebe go elsewhere.
The phoebe pretty certainly would have gone elsewhere, hummer or no hummer. As to what the verdin will conclude to do, things being as they are, my mind is less clearly made up. He is not so swift as his bullet of a rival, but I fancy him to be a pretty dogged fighter, able to be whipped a good many times without finding it out. Still, as between the two, if I were compelled to wager, I think I should risk my money on the hummingbird.