5. Selasphorus rufus


July 14, 2016

Watering another garden yesterday, not this one at the Meeting House, brought me eye-to-eye with a Rufous hummingbird. I care for a patch of native plant habitat along Bowker Creek at Monteith Street. From Jubilee Hospital it’s a kilometer or more downstream. I was directing the spray wand onto three little serviceberry bushes. A hummingbird hovered in front of me at the edge of the spray. Was it drinking? Bathing? I clearly saw the rusty back and light brown belly. No hint of a flaming red throat, but the rusty back is enough. My checklist from Victoria Natural History Society shows only two kinds of hummingbird ever here in July. Selasphorus rufus is the rufous one.

Gardeners at Monteith planted the serviceberry bushes. Hummingbirds will sip at their flowers if the shrubs ever grow up. We do our best to protect them from deer, drought and the lush growth of their neighbouring blue elderberry, which we also planted. Serviceberry starts to bloom in early-mid-April, when the Rufous begin to pass through here. Drinking twice their weight per day in flower nectar, the birds follow the main outburst of spring bloom up the Pacific coast. Flower abundance matters to a creature who can beat its wings fifty times a second, whose heart can thump 1000 times a minute, and who may migrate more than 6000 kilometers twice a year. Rufous hummingbirds typically winter in southern Mexico, in the hills behind Acapulco. They nest north as far as Prince William Sound, Alaska.

In coastal BC, a tradition holds that the Rufous time their arrival for the bloom of red-flowering currant. My mom passed along to me a 1946 book, Wildwood Trails, a collection of newspaper columns by WJ Winson. “Old Mr. Winson”, as Mom referred to him, lived in the woods near my family’s little town in the Fraser Valley. He observed on a warm April day and wrote:

“The little hummer visits no other bush than this large blossoming currant. He is seen here as soon as the light reveals him. The last sunset gleam finds reflection on his throat.

“Over and over the bush he works, hovering before each cluster in irregular turn.”

The gardeners at Monteith have planted several red-flowering currants, plus other early-spring nectar suppliers, salmonberry and tall Oregon grape. A mature big-leaf maple blooms already in April.

Rufous-friendly plants also grow here at the Meeting House, and in Fern Street Park. We see hummingbirds, but I have not yet identified one. They fly fast. Little bodies zoom across the garden and disappear over the roof, one chasing another.

Chasing appears as a common theme in Rufous hummingbird descriptions. Aggression. Territory. The male stakes out his patch of flowers and guards it with exceptional ferocity. At the red-flowering currant bush, WJ Winson observes that honeybees “are bustled off with furious bluffing”; a big queen bumblebee arrives and “he snaps his beak in angry chase”. He needs pugnacity in his long migration. When Rufous arrives in Victoria and finds our resident Anna’s hummingbirds already enjoying a back porch feeder, he chases off the larger hummer species. Up the coast and down the Rockies, Rufous hummingbirds constantly trespass into other creatures’ domains.

Most other hummingbirds, by contrast, never leave the tropics. Of 300-plus species in the Americas, only twelve to fifteen nest north of Mexico. In Canada, five. Only Selasphorus rufus ventures north of sixty degrees. The typical hummingbird stays home in Columbia and Equador, striking exclusive pollination deals with local plants, equatorial, ever-blooming. Tubular flowers evolve, long and narrow to favour the needle bill and syringe tongue. Scientists assert that new flower and hummingbird species continue to co-evolve.

In the northern Andes, hummingbird variety has showered forth during the past twenty million years. An oceanic tectonic plate collides with continental plates, grinds, submerges, pushes up mountains and throws off sparks which are hummingbirds. Rising mountains create new niches of climate and landform. The birds evolve into the niches. Rufous, meanwhile, battles for flowers of varied shape and size as the interloper chases springtime to Victoria and Ketchikan. What draws or pushes the Rufous to such migratory extremes?

To wander is ancient in hummingbirds. In fossil records, hummers emerge first in Europe and Asia around thirty million years ago. They vanish from Eurasia, and re-appear about twenty million years ago in South America. Around five million years ago we find, in North America, the ancestor of all the hummingbirds that will migrate into Canada. It has crossed hundreds of kilometers of ocean from the south, as arising Central America has not yet connected the two continents. Selasphorus rufus separates as a species about a million years ago.

In those million years it has not changed much. The Rufous and its closest cousin, the Allen’s, still appear almost identical; look for the distinctive notch in two tail feathers of the Rufous adult male. The species differ most clearly in range. Rufous claims our Pacific Northwest habitats for springtime nesting, and leaves the California coastal niche to Allen’s.

Yet habitat moves. Changing climate sends plant species relocating up and down the coast. Over the past million years, ten ice ages have displaced Victoria’s cool climate southward to California. Between ice ages Victoria has heated sometimes to our present levels. I imagine Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds continually adjusting their ranges south and north to follow their preferred habitats. Selasphorus rufus may have nested here on Vancouver Island during other of the interglacial periods. In the present warm interlude, one spring during the past several thousand years, Rufous arrived in Bowker Creek’s valley, at this Fern Street hillside, at a blooming bush, ready to fight.

Aggression is normal in this back yard. Belligerence abounds. Sudden squirrel fracas startles me. The rodents emote and fling themselves chasing, clattering up the horse chestnut and leap to the Meeting House roof. Many creatures contest territory in the garden. Robin chases hurtle above it. Crows loudly notify a raccoon in the laurel hedge that he or she must move along. Cats at night shriek to contest who may hunt here. My gardening makes it worse no doubt. The more varied habitat, the more desirable territories for more species to fight over.

Humans contend also in this back yard. I lack adequate time for gardening, and other people want my time. Emma and Fuller fight over it, the 91 year-old and the 14-month-old, Holly’s little boy. This week for example, they both helped me pick snap peas. So long had I neglected the task that many had grown to full-size shelling pods. Emma often gardens with me. Working and contributing in the household means much to her. She sat on her walker beside the pea patch holding a wide stainless steel mixing bowl while I picked and brought peas for her to drop into it.

“That’s a skinny one”, I heard her say. She was sorting through the bowl, throwing thin pods back into the garden. Those “skinny ones” were the snap peas I was trying to harvest, but they didn’t fit her idea of peas. Correcting her wouldn’t help. It would have confused, embarrassed and offended her. So I got another bowl from the kitchen, moved the skinny pods into it, and handed her only the fat ones. She shelled peas. We were both happy.

Meanwhile, where was Fuller? He had tried to help with the peas when I was focused on Emma. Now I couldn’t see him. The fence would keep him in the yard, but he finds hazards everywhere. I scurried to check the fire escape stairs, which he loves to climb, then the north side yard. In the south side yard he was picking cascade berries from the lattice, trampling strawberry plants.

Emma tired of gardening and I escorted her indoors to Sherryll. Fuller took over as my helper with the peas. From the bowl of skinny pods he threw handfuls into the garden and replaced them with handfuls of leaf mulch. Gardening with Fuller doesn’t really work either.

We had one excellent gardening session this week though. Sherryll called me from my desk upstairs to look after him while she took Emma out on errands. Fuller climbed on the play structure in Fern Street Park, then I wheeled him to sleep in the jogger. I can’t get the jogger upstairs so I couldn’t return to my desk. Instead I got a shovel from the shed and spread a layer of soil onto a compost box as Fuller slept. He slept as I tied up tomato plants and snapped off unwanted extra shoots. I weeded the potatoes. Ah, gardening, peaceful and productive like it’s supposed to be, and the beautiful guy sleeping.

A lovely moment darts into the busyness like a small bird to hover briefly. A few days ago Fuller stood gazing at the top of a Lombardy poplar illuminated in evening sun and moving gently in the breeze. Looking at me he said “Ooooh, ooooh”, waving his hand like the tree. He pulled me into his wonder at the glory of it. Those poplars suck up too much water; the roots have wrecked my raspberries and now invade the vegetables; Sherryll bought them and insisted that I plant them; she and Fuller see things the same way I guess.

He eats berries with earnest purpose. Any day he visits here we forage the garden and the park for strawberries, cascades, raspberries, thimbleberries, black-caps. When I tire of it and move him along he fights me to return to the berries. Their sweetness draws him like nectar draws a hummingbird, controls his attention. But his focus on the poplar was different. Gazing open-mouthed at a treetop, turning and telling another person “Ooooh, ooooh” was not hummingbird-like behaviour. It was child-like.

That ability for amazement, I’ve mostly forgotten. I’ve learned to filter my perceptions like other adult apes. If the treetop contains no threat or opportunity for the old primate, why would he gaze there? Perception serves my safety, appetites and social status, guards my territories, furthers my goals, adds new birds to my list. Rarely would I simply see the poplar top lit-up. Only crumbs and bleached, thin threads of reality squeeze through adult filters. Standing staring I leave mainly to the child. Wonder is for little ones. It’s a practice I need though. I hope to relearn it. What a world might be out there and in here for the person who can glimpse at times beyond the bulky editorial apparatus, the towering walls of assumption, concept, category, identity that the adult maintains around himself.

I want the child’s amazement back. And something else, I want Rufous hummingbird’s aggression, spirit of lively defense. The little bird so clearly defines his patch of flowers and so relentlessly guards it. Serviceberry bushes at Monteith need that from me. Any modest remnant of local native plant habitat along Bowker Creek needs gardeners to fight for it. Human heart expands now to embrace communities of life around and within us, to honour our local valley, our stream and the plants along its shore. Our sense of justice correspondingly expands. It accords serviceberry rights to bloom and fruit here, with red-flowering currant, tall Oregon grape, big-leaf maple, Rufous hummingbird, people and the complex of plants and animals that have interwoven since this land rose from the sea.

Rufous hummingbird, face-to-face I appeal for a spark of your spirit in me. I open my mind to long, deep mind of this valley where Homo sapiens and Selasphorus rufous from ancient days of spring regard one-another at a flowering bush. Gardeners of Bowker Valley would care for habitat that both our species have long made home. Lend us your fierce, quick, acrobatic, implacable energy defending it.