We recently moved to rural Yell County, a place I’ve dreamed of living since I was a child. We started a fall garden, created a compost bin, are building a portable chicken coop, and plan to get the clothesline up this weekend. I can’t wait to build a root cellar, get some goats and mules and donkeys, and put in some fruit trees and muscadine vines. I do miss Little Rock (especially the people), and someday after I’ve had more time to find the words, I’ll write about the transition from living next to an interstate to living down a dirt road. But until then, suffice it to say, I love my new home.
Though we dream of goats and sheep and all manner of equine, we’re a pretty practical family living on a shoestring budget. So we started our new life by putting in some simple hummingbird feeders along the porch’s roof line. My mother always enjoyed hummingbirds, but I never really paid that much attention to them until we all started sharing a front porch.
As my close friends know, I’m an anxious person, quick to worry. My brain is a huge hamster wheel of nervous energy, and I’m always a little on edge. I’m working on that. The first few days with the hummingbirds I found naively peaceful. Sure, I noticed their nervous energy, but only cerebrally. I looked up at Springs Mountain in the distance, I saw the fluttering wings up above me, and I was generally enamored with the whole situation. What magic, I thought. Maybe it was that second feeder we put in that sent the whole situation over the edge, but after only a few days I began to feel how much hummingbirds move.
They routinely fight over the sugar water, running each other off, and flying so close to our heads as to create a whirlwind kind of breeze. Their wings sound like little lawnmowers or tiny airplanes coming in for a landing, and some of them let off these high pitched chirps as they whiz by. The fly into our front window and then propel backward, as if to say, “again?” I laughed at myself as I started to realize that here I was sitting on a porch, staring at a mountain, trying to hang out with birds in some effort to encourage a more calm state of mind, only to realize that these little creatures gave off a nervous energy that totally surpassed mine.
So I decided it was time I got to know them a little better. One Sunday morning we pulled out a book on hummingbirds we’d recently picked up from the Dardanelle Library. Our reading led to lots of numerical details: hummingbirds beat their wings up to 70 times per second and their heart rates can reach over a 1,000 beats per minute. They typically fly at about 30 miles an hour. But they can fly up to 60 miles an hour when they’re sailing around trying to impress.
Buried deep in one of the paragraphs about their tiny eggs, I found the single most fascinating bit of information I’ve heard in years: hummingbirds bind their tiny little nests with spider webs.
I’m not exactly sure what triggered it, but I’ve been thinking a lot about spider webs for at least a year now. My last column for ABOUT was about their proliferation in the late summer, and in recent months I’ve been trying to put spider names to web designs. But truth be told, I’m not nearly as interested in spiders as I am in their housing.
We soon learned it’s the silk the hummingbirds are after. It’s sticky, stronger than steel, and has a gentle give to it. It helps bind the nest to the tree, but it also gives the nest an elastic quality that helps the tiny nest expand to fit the growing chicks. Hummingbirds are also partial to lichen, plant fibers, and fur. I’d like to tell you I’ve found several nests around our place, but no luck so far. Apparently they build them anywhere from 10 to 90 feet off the ground, and they’re only about the size of a quarter. Like the webs I have recently come to love, I suspect the whole place is teeming with tiny nests. I just haven’t learned to see them yet.
In case you are wondering, most of the time hummingbirds go for recently vacated webs. But every so often they wind up getting trapped in a recent one and don’t make it out.
Back in my twenties, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about anthropomorphism. It’s basically a big word that refers to the way we humans ascribe human feelings and emotions onto animals. I guess I still do think about it a little, but I’m okay with the gray areas. And after I found out about their whole spiderweb collecting ventures I decided I was totally happy to share my porch with these tiny little anxiety flappers, even if we are all a little bit too wound up.
So I see the hummingbirds darting back and forth and I laugh at myself, and I smile at them, and I just go on about my reading and my mountain watching, knowing that we’re both fixated on — we both grew up connected to — a web.